by Najib Mahfuz
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in the Islamic quarter of Cairo at the end of World War II; published in Arabic (as Zuqaq al-Midaqq) in 1947, in English in 1966 (corrected translation published in 1975).
Modernization affects the traditional ways of life on a secluded street near the heart of the old city of Cairo.
Najib Mahfuz (also spelled Naguib Mahfouz), winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, was born December 11, 1911, in the Jamaliyya quarter of Cairo, a part of the city that dates back to the tenth century. The quarter is situated near the area in which the events he recounts in Midaqq Alley are set. Mahfuz grew up as the son of a minor civil servant, eventually following in his father’s footsteps. He began his civil service career in 1939, also publishing his first novel that year. Mahfuz would go on to publish more than 50 novels, short stories, and plays. His sixth novel, Midaqq Alley is set during the waning days of World War II, a period of social malaise and rising political tension in Egypt. The novel, both a thriller and a carefully crafted literary meditation, is generally regarded as the rehearsal for his three-volume masterpiece, Trilogy, which evokes on a grand scale the panorama of Cairene society between 1917 and 1945.
A question of fictional timing
There has been controversy over the exact time period in which Midaqq Alley is set. Although it is clearly situated during World War II, early critics placed it during the winter of 1941-42 or 1943-44, while more recently scholars have concluded that it transpires in the winter and spring of 1944-45. The textual evidence for this latter view seems convincing: in the novel’s first pages one character mentions that “we’ve been suffering terrors of blackouts and air-raids for five years,” suggesting that the war (1939-45) is drawing to a close (Mahfuz, Midaqq Alley, p. 2).
The distinction is important because in 1942 German general Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps was still menacing the major cities of Egypt, and the British presence on Egyptian soil had some legitimacy, while by 1945 nearly everyone, including many of the British soldiers themselves, wished the British army well out of the country. Further, if the novel was composed late in the war, the social world evoked in Midaqq Alley can more justifiably be seen as reproducing the backdrop for probably the most significant change in Egypt during the twentieth century, the 1952 revolution that brought Gamal Abdul Nasser (also spelled Jamal ʿAbd al-Nasir) to power. It is only by understanding the national sense of discontent, of frustration with the stalemate into which democratic parliamentary life had degenerated by the close of the war years, that one can appreciate why Egyptians were willing in the 1950s to surrender some of their hard-won freedoms in the name of social progress under Nasser.
Seeds of discontent
Although most of the events in Midaqq Alley take place in or near the alley itself and the British as a colonial force are rarely allowed to intrude upon the action, the few references in the novel to their existence would have been sufficient to remind Egyptian readers of the chronically distorting effect that colonial policy had been exerting on life in their country, even in places like Midaqq, which appeared outwardly untouched by its influence.
The political relationships operative in 1944-45 were set in motion more than 60 years earlier, in 1882, when Britain invaded Egypt to put down a rebellion against the financial exactions ordered by the French and British Controllers who oversaw all aspects of public expenditure by the Egyptian government. Egypt was at that time more than £E90,000,000 in debt to various European creditors, and the Controllers were there to ensure that the debts were paid. Shortly after being appointed in the late 1870s, the Controllers divided the projected revenues of the country (approximately £E9,000,000 per year) in two, with half going directly to pay off the foreign creditors and half to the expenses of administering Egypt. But it was quickly found that the actual encumbrances placed on the revenues were well in excess of the estimated £E4,500,000 earmarked for servicing debts. This was followed by the discovery that the government revenue had been overestimated by approximately a million Egyptian pounds, so in the end only about £E2,000,000 was left to run the country. Since the Controllers were unwilling to offend Egypt’s foreign creditors by reducing payments on debts, this meant draconian cuts had to be enacted in expenditures in the country itself on education, the army, government departments, and public works. At one point, taxes were being collected as much as 6 months in advance while government salaries were as much as 18 months in arrears. The situation bred popular discontent, especially in the army.
The ’Urabi revolt
In 1879 the ruling khedive, Isma’il, was deposed by the British and French because of his attempts to exert more control over how the meager government revenues were being spent. He was replaced by his son, Tawfiq, who was at first welcomed by reformist elements within the country; they believed he would summon a shura (a consultative body similar to a parliament) and would rule as a constitutional monarch. Their hopes were dashed when Tawfiq discovered that he would continue to receive British and French support only as long as he made sure the debt payments were on time. Armed with this knowledge, he decided to rule as an autocrat without a popular mandate. This eventually led to a confrontation with Colonel Ahmad ʿUrabi, leader of the nationalist, constitutionalist elements in the army.
ʿUrabi was a native Egyptian, from the peasant class of farmers (the vast majority of Egypt’s population at the time) known as fellahin. The army officer corps had long been recruited not from the peasants but from the descendants of the Turco-Circassians who had arrived in Egypt with the Ottoman conquest in 1516. The khedive Isma’il, however, had continued his predecessor’s initiative of allowing some native Egyptians to enter the officers’ ranks. Since these officers tended to depend solely on their pay for living expenses, they felt great discontent at the government’s budget cuts. In September 1881 ʿUrabi, champion of the Egyptian officers, presented their requests for reforms to the new khedive, Tawfiq, who was reputed to have replied: “I am the Khedive of the country and shall do as I please” (Ahmed, p. 25). The next year people rioted in Alexandria, and this led to battle between the British and ʿUrabi, who by this time had become a hero linked to the notion of “Egypt for the Egyptians.” In the end, ʿUrabi was defeated by the British and exiled.
The British occupation
The bloody suppression of ʿUrabi’s defiance in 1882 began a long military occupation of Egypt by British troops that would be decisively ended only by the Suez War in 1956. This was long after the debts Isma’il had contracted were paid; Britain remained in Egypt as much because of emerging strategic interests as purely financial ones. In 1869 the Suez Canal opened. Linking the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea across Egypt’s Isthmus of Suez, it shortened the journey between England and its overseas possessions in the East—primarily India—by more than 6,000 miles. By the 1880s as much as 80 percent of the traffic through the Canal was British, and keeping this vital transportation artery open had become a prime factor in England’s foreign policy. This resolve would only increase with the discovery of oil in Iran (and later Iraq). Fuel transported through the Suez Canal became the mainstay of Britain’s military forces, especially its powerful navy.
So, although the British government had initially declared that it was occupying Egypt only temporarily and would leave as soon as Egypt could govern itself, that day never seemed to arrive.
The ʿUrabi Revolt inaugurated the fundamental pattern followed in Egypt’s political life until the 1952 revolution: a three-cornered power game involving the British, the khedive (later “king”), and various coalitions of nationalist politicians seeking independence and a democratic (or at least a representative) government. The relations between these three centers of power were constantly shifting; on one occasion or another, any of the three groups might join with one of its opponents to deprive the third of a share in political power. Since no one group was strong enough to completely overwhelm the other two, the situation resembled nothing more closely than an endless game of musical chairs. Sometimes, however, the internal political battles in the upper echelons of power took on a more epic note that involved the entire Egyptian nation. One of the most important of these instances occurred in late 1918 as the carnage that was World War I stumbled to an exhausted close.
Egypt had been dragged into the war in ways that profoundly changed the life of the country. First, the British formalized their control over Egypt by declaring it a Protectorate at the start of the war, when Egypt’s nominal suzerain, the Ottoman Empire, allied itself with Germany, England’s enemy in the conflict. This unilateral act, followed by a declaration of martial law, made many Egyptians acutely conscious that their last shreds of independence were being stripped from them. Second, although much of Egypt’s governmental revenue was already used to pay for the costs of the military occupation of their country (as well as for the salaries of the foreign—mostly English—employees who made up approximately 70 percent of the higher posts in the civil service), at the start of the war additional imposts to support the military effort were levied on the people. Meanwhile, inflation, which had roughly doubled prices between 1914 and 1917, sapped the buying power of those on fixed incomes. Finally, the British recruited the fellahin into a Labor Corps that was made to dig entrenchments and construct roads and railways in the Sinai Desert for the British who fought the Turks in the Levant. By 1918 nearly 100,000 Egyptians were serving in this Labor Corps, which not infrequently was exposed to enemy fire even though its members were not armed. Animals, foodstuffs, and machinery were also requisitioned from the peasants. Toward the end of the war, conscription was introduced, since the fellahin could not be persuaded to voluntarily remain away from their families and their crops for long periods, despite the relatively high salaries the British offered (paid for by the Egyptian government, of course). Late in 1918 Britain’s General Allenby envisioned that all these practices—martial law, extra taxation, conscription into the Labor Corps, and widespread requisitioning of equipment and supplies—would have to be extended well past the end of the war itself.
The revolution of 1919
The Versailles Peace Conference marked the close of World War I. News reached Egypt of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s proposal to adopt as the basis for negotiations at the peace conference his “Fourteen Points”—one of which promised the chance to develop self-government for nationalities formerly under Turkish rule. Many Egyptians responded enthusiastically. In their minds, this was Egypt’s opportunity to finally regain its independence and negotiate for British withdrawal from its territory. Two days after the Armistice (November 13,1918) ending World War I, a delegation of Egyptian politicians, with Sa ʿd Zagh-lul at their head, called upon the chief representative of the British in Egypt, the Resident, asking for leave to attend the peace conference and put their case to the assembled delegates. They were summarily turned down by the current Resident, Sir Reginald Wingate, and on March 9, 1919, were arrested and then deported to Malta. Egypt rose the next day in a massive rebellion against British rule, which was quashed only with great loss of life.
In interviews Najib Mahfuz has often spoken of watching with his mother behind the latticed window of their old-fashioned house as British soldiers paraded through Cairo and set up their emplacements on street corners (he was just short of his eighth birthday at the time). Nothing seems to have made a stronger impression on young men and women who would come to maturity in the 1930s and 1940s than the spectacle of their parents and older brothers and sisters marching in huge demonstrations, at the risk of being shot by British soldiers, to press for freedom of expression and the right to democratic representation. Mahfuz himself has spoken of the movement’s leader, Sa ʿd Zaghlul, in almost worshipful terms, calling him “a national hero” and “spiritual father of the Egyptians.” (Mahfuz in Naqqash, trans. T. DeYoung, p. 209.)
The revolution of 1919 in Midaqq Alley
The great idealism that Mahfuz evinces when speaking about the revolution of 1919 contrasts jarringly with the way in which the event is presented through the lens of the characters in Midaqq Alley. Chapter 19, in particular, because it deals with a political rally being staged in Midaqq for the local parliamentary candidate, Ibrahim Farhat, has a number of pointed references to 1919, none of which give favorable impressions. The chapter starts with the ruminations of Uncle Kamil, one of the book’s more sympathetic characters. He discovers that all the bustle and activity of setting up a big pavilion in a vacant lot across from the alley heralds an election rally, whereupon he thinks, “Saad and Adly again” (Midaqq Alley, p. 127). This is an allusion to the first major split in the Wafd Party, as the nationalist coalition under Zaghlul’s leadership came to call itself. It was an event that did not reflect well on the character of Zaghlul. In 1921 Zaghlul withdrew his support for a colleague, ’Adli Yakan Pasha, a former minister like himself, who had been put forward by other Wafdists as an alternate negotiator with the British when Zaghlul’s own negotiations came to naught. In withdrawing his support, he split the ranks of the new party at a time when unity would have been much more to the country’s advantage. The subsequent failure of the British-Egyptian negotiations led to a unilateral declaration by the British government of Egyptian independence on March 1, 1922, but on terms very detrimental to Egypt. Everyone considered independence a facade—in reality, Egypt was still a colony. This was the first in a two-decade series of quarrels within party ranks that would eventually splinter the party and make it vastly easier for the British and the king to manipulate to their own advantage the resulting offshoot parties.
For Mahfuz, as for many others, the event that would destroy his last shred of confidence that the Wafd party leadership stood for any lofty principle occurred on February 4, 1942. That evening Sir Miles Lampson, the British Resident, or High Commissioner, supported by lightly armored vehicles and tanks, forced King Faruq to name as his new prime minister Mustafa Nahhas, then at the helm of the Wafd (Zaghlul had died in 1927). The British had decided that the Wafd should be allowed to accede to power if it pledged unconditional support to the Allies in World War II. For many Egyptians, it was a matter of disgust to see where Nahhas had taken the idealistic principles of the party. In their minds, he was toadying to the hated British in order to achieve a precarious toehold on power (Sayyid-Marsot, pp. 100-101). Their disgust was soon exacerbated by the tawdry spectacle of Makram ʿUbayd, once Nahhas’s most loyal lieutenant, being driven from the party on the apparently trivial grounds of questioning some of Nahhas’s ministerial choices. ʿUbayd retaliated for his dismissal by publishing a tract he called his Black Book, which detailed a raft of corrupt practices within the highest echelons of the Wafd. This seemingly unending string of revelations about chicanery in the ranks of the political party that was most revered and trusted by Egyptians began to undermine their confidence in parliamentary rule. Understanding this decline of faith lends a richly nuanced irony to Uncle Kamil’s seemingly random ruminations in Midaqq Alley on Wafd politicians whose portraits happen to hang on the walls of various businesses in and around the area.
The last portrait of which Uncle Kamil thinks is that of the Khedive ʿAbbas, which hangs in Kirsha’s coffeehouse. Kirsha, in contrast to Uncle Kamil, is probably the least sympathetic character in the alley. An unscrupulous bully and a tyrant to his family, he also proves to be a man of uncontrollable sexual appetites whose favorite target is young and vulnerable boys, whom he seduces, exploits, and abandons. It seems quite natural to discover that his hero is the Germanophile authoritarian ʿAbbas II, who was replaced by the British as khedive at the beginning of World War I for plotting to take Egypt into that war on the German side. Also disclosed in the novel is a sinister secret about Kirsha’s own political past:
In his youth he had distinguished himself in the field of politics. He had taken an active part in the rebellion of 1919 and was reputed to have planned the great fire which destroyed the Jewish Cigarette Trading Co. in Hussain Square. He was one of the heroes in the fierce fighting between the revolutionaries on one side and the Armenians and Jews on the other. When the bloody revolt subsided he had found a new, though restricted outlet for his energies in the subsequent election battles. In the elections of 1924 and 1925 his work was much appreciated even though it was rumored that he accepted bribes from the government candidate while supporting the Wafd party.
(Mahfuz, Midaqq Alley, pp. 129-30)
Here we see the revolution from a very different perspective from the official one. One of the axioms of Wafdist mythology holds that this was the era when Egyptians of all religions and origins were united, when they spoke with a single voice, demanding their independence from the hated British. Certainly the assortment of prominent and activist Wafd members included a number from religious minorities, Jews as well as Christians. But clearly Kirsha does not view the (Christian) Armenians and the Jews whom he attacks as part of some overarching Egyptian polity. On the other hand, nothing about him suggests that he views them as collaborators with the enemy either. Rather politics seems to serve as a cover here for the type of internal, target violence associated with old-fashioned protection rackets and organized crime. More ominous is the last sentence in the passage, which associates
THE EGYPTIAN JEWISH COMMUNITY
One noticeable element in the social picture Mahfuz paints of the alley is the references his characters make to Jews, who in the 1940s numbered about 65,000, living mainly in Cairo and Alexandria (Kramer, p. 10). These numbers are not inconsequential when one considers that at the time the total population of Cairo was only around 2 million and that of Alexandria less than 1 million. In the novel Hamida makes a reference to factory girls who “worked in public places just like the Jewish women” (Midaqq Alley, p. 35). She seems to be referring not to the Europeanized Jews at the highest levels of society but to the Karaites, a sect living in Egypt since the Middle Ages that rejected the practices of Rabbinical Judaism as codified in the books of Jewish oral law (the Talmud). Instead, they stressed a return to the direct interpretation of scripture. In this, and in certain other respects, their practices resembled Islamic practices. On the other hand, an area in which they differed noticeably from their Muslim neighbors was in the greater social freedom accorded their women, who, “rather than veiling themselves, seem to have displayed their beauty quite openly, at least within their quarter” (Krämer, p. 25). That the Karaites, in particular, were known for this tolerance helps explain Hamida’s attitude of mixed envy and admiration for the Jewish women she knows.
the Wafd with corrupt practices at a much earlier time than is usually acknowledged as the starting point for such machinations.
Kirsha’s reminiscences about his past as a Wafd enforcer would evoke for Mahfuz’s Egyptian readers another feature of political life in the waning days of World War II: a disquieting return to violence to solve political problems. Early in its struggle for independence certain elements in the Wafd (the inner circle around Zaghlul seems to have been ignorant of these happenings) had on occasion resorted to assassination to punish party disloyalty and to terrorize British officials who opposed the party’s goals. The most spectacular incident was the assassination in November 1924 of Sir Lee Stack, commander in chief of the Egyptian army and a close confidant of General Allenby—British Resident in Egypt at the time. The assassins later confessed to being Wafdist agents, though the Wafd denied complicity. In any case, the deed backfired, since Allenby exacted heavy indemnities on the Egyptian government as vengeance for his friend’s death, which placed the British in a stronger position than they had been in before. From that time on, at least in public, the Wafd scrupulously dissociated itself from political violence.
In 1945, however, the specter of assassination returned to Egyptian politics. In October 1944 the success of Mustafa Nahhas’s initiatives in drafting a treaty of cooperation among the Arab states (which would eventually lead to the founding of the Arab League) encouraged him to consolidate his position vis-à-vis the young King Faruq by tendering his resignation. His resignation would have forced the king to call new elections, with the Wafd standing a good chance of increasing its margin in parliament. To forestall this, Faruq summarily dismissed Nahhas and his cabinet before they could resign, which allowed Faruq to appoint a new prime minister of his own without having to call for elections. Faruq chose Ahmad Mahir, who was acceptable to the British. Mahir had been an original member of the Wafd leadership but split with Nahhas in the late 1930s and formed a new party that he and his supporters called the Sa ʿdist Party, an allusion to their slogan that they were returning to the original principles of the early leader Sa ʿd (Zaghlul). After forming a new cabinet, in February 1945 Mahir called elections, whose outcome he controlled (they were boycotted by the Wafd). It is likely that Mahfuz means us to associate these elections with those portrayed in Chapter 19 of Midaqq Alley.
At the end of February 1945, Mahir, pressured by British prime minister Winston Churchill, agreed to have Egypt officially declare war on Germany. Mahir duly shepherded the declaration of war through both houses of the Egyptian Parliament, but as he left the Chamber of Deputies on February 24, 1945, he was shot dead by a Nazi sympathizer, a young Egyptian lawyer. A few months earlier, on November 6, 1944, while on his way to dinner, Lord Moyne, British Minister of State in Cairo, had been killed by members of the Zionist underground terrorist organization, the Stern Gang. However the Egyptians may have felt about the political murder of a high British official, the death of Lord Moyne brought to mind the heavy indemnities exacted by Allenby in the wake of the earlier assassination of Sir Lee Stack and aroused fears that they might be repeated. The execution of the Moyne assassins in March 1945, coming closely on the heels of Ahmad Mahir’s killing, only heightened the sense of tension. Although no explicit mention of these events occurs in Midaqq Alley the atmosphere of violence and disorder they engendered forms the perfect backdrop to the deteriorating situation in the alley, which culminates in the death of a main character, the generally gentle and sensitive ʿAbbas, at the hands of British soldiers, after he has disfigured his fiancee, Hamida, for life because of her decision to take up prostitution to service these same British soldiers. The sense that the world portrayed in Midaqq Alley is on the verge of breakdown, waiting for some cataclysmic change to stem the tide of violence, increases when one considers the fact that between the time that the events in the novel take place (probably in 1944-45) and the time of the novel’s publication (in late 1947), a wave of civil protests, bloodily suppressed by British and government troops, swept through Egypt, resulting in the deaths of many ordinary people. Uthman Pasha, a harmless but pro-British finance minister, was assassinated early in 1946. And, in 1948 (shortly after Midaqq Alley appeared in the bookstores) Prime Minister Mahmud Fahmi Nuqrashi Pasha was killed by members of the Muslim Brotherhood in retaliation for outlawing their organization. In view of these events, the political disillusionment permeating Mahfuz’s novel presents a disturbingly prescient picture of life in postwar Egypt.
Midaqq Alley has sometimes been labeled a novel “without a central plot,” but actually there is a great deal of plot in the novel (El-Enany, p. 54). Every character seems to participate in his or her own independent story while contributing to the greater whole—the texture of daily life in the alley. Aside from these branchings, the central plot consists of relatively straightforward action that recalls the conventional plots of pulp melodrama, in which vice is punished and virtue rewarded, but not without a few sacrifices along the way.
The story involves the fortunes of three of the alley’s young people on the verge of adulthood and the formation of their independent identities: Husayn Kirsha, son of the alley’s coffeeshop owner; Hamida (significantly without a family name), adopted daughter of the alley’s resident professional matchmaker, Umm Hamida; and ʿAbbas Hilu, the local barber. Husayn and Hamida are by Islamic tradition considered foster brother and sister because both were suckled by the same wet-nurse, and this means they are seen as having certain family obligations toward each other that go beyond their association as playmates. ʿAbbas, who grew up in the alley, has an even more nebulous family background than Hamida and appears by contrast to the other characters to be an outsider. He has, nevertheless, forged strong ties with people in the alley. He has become close friends with Husayn and his neighbor, Uncle Kamil, owner of the candy store. During the course of the novel’s action, he will fall in love with Hamida and seek to marry her.
Hamida, however, has ambitions to gain wealth and social position and is hesitant to accept the poor but loving ʿAbbas, even though he has gone to work with Husayn in the British military camp at Tell el-Kebir and is earning lots of money. She has another suitor: the rich merchant Salim ʿAlwan, who operates a perfume shop in the alley and wants a second wife to help service his sexual needs, which he feeds quite literally with a daily dose of aphrodisiac at lunch. Just as something is about to come of this relationship, however, Salim ʿAlwan has a heart attack and Hamida is thrown back on her own resources. She is soon “rescued” at a political rally, where she is spotted by Ibrahim Faraj, a pimp who trains prostitutes for the Allied soldiers. He follows her from the rally, strikes up a conversation, and eventually persuades her to leave Midaqq behind and become his newest recruit. As Hamida is being educated for her new profession at Ibrahim Faraj’s “Academy for Whores,” Husayn Kirsha reappears in the alley, having lost his job but gained a pregnant wife. ʿAbbas returns at the same time but only for a brief visit, since he is still working for the British. As luck would have it, he runs into Hamida, at work in her new trade as a prostitute, on the way back to camp. In order to shift blame from herself, Hamida identifies Ibrahim as the criminal, her seducer. ʿAbbas makes her promise to bring Ibrahim to a nearby bar the next week so that ʿAbbas can avenge her honor. When the day comes, on impulse ʿAbbas recruits his old friend Husayn Kirsha to come with him to the bar to help, but when they arrive, Ibrahim is not there. They see only Hamida, laughing and flirting with a group of soldiers. ʿAbbas loses control and cuts Hamida’s face with a broken bottle. The soldiers beat him to death as Husayn watches, unable to move.
In the final chapter, a guilt-ridden Husayn returns to the alley to tell the assembled inhabitants of ʿAbbas’s demise. Uncle Kamil and Salim Alwan (now recovered from his heart attack) are at first deeply affected by ʿAbbas’s fate. But eventually the alley’s denizens return to their old routine. Among them is Sheikh (or Shaykh) Darwish, a half-mad retired government employee who wanders the alley making oracular pronouncements, “a fine and holy man of God, to whom revelation came in two languages, Arabic and English”; one day Sheikh Darwish spots Uncle Kamil laughing and joking with his friends as though ʿAbbas had never existed and pronounces the story to be at an “E-N-D” (Midaqq Alley, p. 13).
The critique of Arab nationalism
In Egyptian history, one of the few positive initiatives to emerge from the Wafdist government during World War II was a treaty that set up the framework for an international body, the Arab League, that would give Arabic-speaking countries a forum for cooperation and institution-building in the postwar world. The favorable climate for such a body was in large part due to the success of the Arab nationalist movement in nurturing the notion that there was such a thing as an “Arab” identity and that the people holding allegiance to this identity shared certain concerns that could best be addressed by some kind of concerted action. Thus, the question of Arabness was very much “in the air” during the writing of Midaqq Alley.
What exactly this “Arab” identity entailed, however, involved a certain elasticity, since it had to appeal to an ever-widening audience during the 1940s. Most intellectuals agreed that it involved at least three basic elements. The first two were easy enough to formulate. To consider oneself Arab, one had to be a speaker of the Arabic language and, more importantly, had to prefer the standard variety of Arabic in common use across the Arab world over the local dialects as a vehicle for communication. Secondly, one had to identify with the history of Arab achievement in the public and cultural spheres as a noble heritage worthy of emulation. Defining the third element of Arab identity was more difficult. One had to accept certain values found in the Islamic religion, such as tolerance and egalitarianism, as having a moral and ethical effect beneficial to society, even if one were not a practicing Muslim. In other words, one could be a Christian or a Jew, or even potentially an agnostic or an atheist, and still call oneself an “Arab,” as long as one saw the rise of Islam as having exercised a benevolent rather than detrimental influence on the societies in the region. At various points in Midaqq Alley (which appeared around the time of the founding of the Arab League), these three cardinal points of Arab identity—as well as subsidiary ones deriving from them—come under close scrutiny. The novel implicitly questions just how applicable each of these ideas is to the complex reality of Egyptian society in the period of British occupation.
The first formulation to be placed under the microscope is that the glorious past of the Arabs is directly relevant to the world of Mahfuz’s characters. Since so much of old Cairo contains historical monuments—mainly because it was spared the wars and sieges that regularly swept over many other Arab cities—it is particularly susceptible to the sleight-of-hand that might transform it into a living memorial of the Arabs’ historical experience. But there is irony in such statements as “[m]any things combine to show that Midaqq 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” (Midaqq Alley, p. 1). The irony is revealed both by the subsequent uncertainty of the narrator about the nature of this glory, and by the general obliviousness of the characters to this element of their surroundings.
This opening is followed by a scene that evokes and then reveals the contradictions in some of the commonplaces found in the nationalist representations of society in the 1940s. We have moved inside Kirsha’s coffeeshop, the social center of the alley. It is evening and an old blind man enters the café, takes up his accustomed seat, and begins to tune a long-necked stringed instrument called a rebaba, which he has brought with him. He starts to sing, or rather chant, the conventional introduction to a poem: “We are going to begin today by saying a prayer for the Prophet. An Arab Prophet, the chosen son of the people of Adnan. Abu Saada, the Zanaty, says …”; before he can proceed, however, he is driven off the premises by Kirsha, who tells him: “We all know the stories you tell by heart and we don’t need to run through them again. People today don’t want a poet. They keep asking me for a radio and there’s one over there being installed now. So go away and leave us alone and may God provide for you” (Midaqq Alley, p. 5). The man being replaced by the radio is a traditional storyteller of popular epic tales, a neighborhood fixture everywhere in the Arab world before the middle of the twentieth century. These storytellers had a number of epic cycles in their repertoires, the favorite and most elaborate being the story of the adventures of the Bani Hilal people as they accompanied the first Muslim Arab armies of conquest sweeping across the Levant and then North Africa in the seventh and eighth centuries c.e. Such tales present analogues to the pictures of daring and chivalry found in European accounts of knightly deeds and could equally be said to form the basis for the idealized value system found in modern master narratives of Arab identity. Yet here, in Midaqq Alley, that “hallowed tradition” is being displaced by the radio, purveyor of modern news and sports broadcasts and—in this time period—of the highly problematic “truths” of both Axis and Allied propaganda. The incident points yet again to the delusive nature of an unadulterated shared sense of history and cultural values among any “people,” not to speak of a group as large and with such diverse experiences as the Arabs.
The choice of the oral epic as the “hallowed tradition” to be supplanted raises issues about language as well. Arabic has always existed in two varieties, a standard version used mostly in writing, intelligible throughout the Arab world, and colloquial versions that are regionally based, used for day-to-day oral communication, which can be mutually unintelligible. Midaqq Alley, as a written literary work, uses standard Arabic. The oral epic is always delivered in the colloquial language of the area where the poet lives. The banishment of Midaqq Alley’s poet, then, highlights a tension inherent within an element of Arab nationalist ideology. The victory of the unified language (in the novel and on the radio) in this case entails the suppression of the oral epic, which, though conveyed in various colloquial dialects, was used to express shared, uniquely Arabic cultural values.
The fact that standard Arabic is not a transparent and universally valid medium of communication for all Arabs is highlighted later in the novel. Hamida returns to the alley to find Ibrahim Farhat’s election rally in full swing and is delighted with the entertainment provided, especially as “she had thought it would be merely a political rally with long speeches delivered in almost incomprehensible classical Arabic” (Midaqq Alley, p. 134). Barely educated, Hamida has likely never had the opportunity to study the standard language; for her, standard Arabic means little. The jokes, monologues, and skits of Ibrahim Farhat’s innovative program delivered in the local colloquial, on the other hand, appeal greatly to Hamida and to the other inhabitants of the alley as well.
Continually, then, Midaqq Alley questions Arab nationalist ideas that were prominent in Egyptian public discourse at the time. It does not follow, however, that the novel rejects the task of national identity formation. Rather the novel suggests that even the most attractive allegiances need to be subjected to constant scrutiny; otherwise they lose their capacity to grow and change with the times, becoming sterile and meaningless slogans.
Sources and literary context
Midaqq Alley was recognized from the time of its publication for its innovations in realism and for the class of people it chose to deal with. The fact that it did not sentimentalize its subject matter was especially striking in the decade that followed its publication, the 1950s, when socialist realism took hold more strongly and virtually dictated that the working class be treated in heroic fashion. Midaqq Alley is frequently compared to Tawfiq al-Hakim’s novel Return of the Spirit as heralding a shift in literary sensibility. At the same time the contrast between the two novels has been called to people’s attention. While Return of the Spirit achieved near-mythic status in the 1950s as the favorite novel of Gamal Abdul Nasser, quintessential hero of modern Arab nationalism, Midaqq Alley was seen by contemporaries as a far more realistic picture of Egyptian life. This perception of greater realism may in large part reflect the novel’s skeptical attitude toward the simplistic formulas espoused by some proponents of Egyptianism and Arabism.
Equally important for fixing the place of Midaqq Alley in contemporary Arabic literature are the thematic parallels between it and Nawal Sa ʿdawi’s famous novel of the 1970s, Woman at Point Zero (also covered in African Literature and Its Times). Both novels include a female prostitute as their central character; the portrayal of Sa ʿdawi’s prostitute, Firdaus, a few decades after Mahfuz’s can be interpreted as a feminist challenge to some of the assumptions underlying his portrayal of Hamida.
WOMEN AND THE LAND IN ARABIC LITERATURE
As Mahfuz himself has noted, Hamida and to a lesser extent the other female characters in Midaqq Alley can be seen as having an important symbolic dimension (Mahfuz in Naqqash, p. 56). On some level, Hamida represents the land—Egypt—whose possession is sought by both the British and indigenous males. Such an equation is very old in Arabic literature, going back to pre-lslamic times. How much this trope is used in portraying her can be seen most profitably by comparing her with Saniyya, the hero of Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Return of the Spirit, who is much more overtly linked to the land and Egypt. Saniyya, too, is sought by all the male characters. Her idealized beauty and goodness works a magical transformation on characters, moving them from sordid selfishness to noble generosity and self-sacrifice for their fellow Egyptians. By contrast, it goes hand in hand with Mahfuz’s deflation of the pretensions of nationalism that Hamida is introduced by a scene in which her stepmother combs lice out of her beautiful long dark hair (so similar to Saniyya’s). Likewise Hamida’s temperament is rough and harsh, in contrast to Saniyya’s sweetness and gentleness. In making Hamida’s character the inversion of all the idealized female’s traits, Midaqq Alley risks dehumanizing her. When compared with these earlier examples, Woman at Point Zero’s heroine, Firdaus, may be seen as a critique of a past penchant for turning female characters into simple automatons of symbolism, rather than fully rounded characters in the tradition of the realistic novel.
Although Mahfuz was still in the early stages of his career as a novelist when Midaqq Alley appeared, the generally laudatory and respectful Arabic reviews of the novel make it clear that he had already established a considerable reputation as an innovator and stylistic craftsman. This approbation has not, however, been unequivocally shared by Western commentators. Michael Beard, among others, expressed a certain hesitancy:
“The non-western novel, with its occasional deviation from patterns western readers anticipate, … often strikes western readers as unworthy of their attention….” I had Mahfouz in mind when I wrote those lines, specifically the Mahfouz of Midaqq Alley …I could spend time on an apology here, explaining away my insensitivity by citing …. the fact that I suspect I am describing the experience of a lot of Western readers. But in any case, the strangeness of Mahfouz is, for us, the irreducible fact with which we have to come to terms.
(Beard, p. 96)
In contrast, the Arabic reviewer Tharwat Abazah, writing in the influential periodical Al-Risalah, praised Mahfuz’s creativity and originality, calling the novel “the first story of its kind in Arabic” (Abazah, p. 125; trans. T. DeYoung). Sayyid Qutb wrote a review for the journal Al-Fikr al-Jadid in which he too heralded the novel’s originality, especially in its presentation of character. He then went on to call the work “a novel of presentation (ʿard) or panorama (isti ʿrad) in that it follows a group of individuals, upon [all] of whom the spotlight shines the entire time, and in this respect no one of them is the focus and no one of them is given greater importance than the others” (Qutb, trans. T. DeYoung, p. 201). Chances that Western readers can share such appreciation are bolstered by recent trends in literary criticism, which highlight increased sensitivity to the concerns that drive non-European works and circumstances under which they are written.
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