Review Dedication: Many thanks to Cafe Libri Yahoo Group member Jeffrey Taylor for an engaging book discussion that aided in my research for this review.
This is the first book I've read by author Naguib Mahfouz, and I was pleasantly surprised by the pace and development of the story and characters. Mahfouz is well-known as one of Egypt's first novelists; he dared to break traditions and focus on a genre that was not encouraged by his country. The passion and love he had for the novel is depicted in every word that he wrote. Though his writing style is simple and direct, he focuses on a specific time and place that connects readers to the myraid characters he develops in Midaq Alley. He doesn't give a fully detailed view of these characters, though, but instead provides a distant surface view of the scenes letting the reader fill in some of the gaps with their own imagination.
As I was reading, I was able to get inside the characters, understand some of the connections between everyone, and the reasons behind their motivations. I appreciated this approach rather than the typical omniscient narrator that tells the reader what they need to know.
The setting says a lot about the characters. The novel takes place in a small and poor alley (Midaq Alley) in Cairo, Egypt. There are over fifteen characters that live in this alley, and Mahfouz shows how they interact, or don't interact, based on the concerns facing each family. Many of the younger characters, like Hamida and Hussain, desperately try to escape the poverty that awaits them if they continue to live in the alley. Yet, no matter what happens to each character, no matter the tragedies or triumphs, life continues in the alley.
Midaq Alley is a novel about dramatic confrontations that stage the events in the lives of the characters created without surfacing all the personal conflicts that motivate those actions. One member in Yahoo Cafe Libri compared the novel to an opera because of the presentation of larger elements of conflict without the knowledge of the interior elements that support the actions and reasonings of the characters. I agree with Jeffrey's assessment because the novel does read like an opera or a play. For example, everyone has dramatic fights with each other, like a bad daytime soap, in which there is yelling, screaming, and storm-offs between fathers and sons, husbands and wives, daughters and mothers, etc. The reader doesn't understand why there is so much dissatisfaction with the status-quo and wonders if the characters even understand their own motivations and behaviors; why leave now? Where can they run to? Love is displayed with violent confrontations that often end with tragedy while sexual deviance arises as a minor subject matter in an already jam-packed book. The main point of confusion that might hit readers is whether or not the characters' actions are justified. Are they independent activities in the larger scheme of the alley or will they connect later to another point in the novel? In this sense, Midaq Alley reflects real life scenarios in which passions control characters' actions and logic takes a back seat as readers get carried away by the moment as painted by Mahfouz.
The story and plot focuses on life in the alley. Each chapter is almost like a vignette because the emphasis skips from character to character. For instance, one chapter is dedicated to Hamida and her search for the perfect, rich husband to take her away from the poverty of the alley while the next chapter focuses on the Kirsha family and the problems between husband, wife, and son. The stories don't always intersect, so sometimes it can be a little difficult to follow the plot, especially if you get invested in one character's story and then the novel switches to another character. I found myself impatiently waiting to see how Hamida's actions would affect her and her mother's lives as well as the multitude of beaus that were chasing after her. Eventually, I learned to appreciate each character for a different reason, and I especially came to respect the preachings of the spiritual advisor to the alley, Radwan Hussainy. His speeches and advice were always powerful and important even though many in the alley refused to listen. Hussainy represented the Islamic faith, and taught me new lessons about life even if he didn't always reach the people in his flock.
One part that was truly fascinating about life in the alley is how people were not always involved or interacting with each other, yet the gossip still spread when something bad happened. For example, Hamida never interacts with the Kirsha family, but they are quite aware of the scandal she causes with her finicky choices for a husband. The way the people in the alley interacted, or didn't interact, reminded me of a small suburb where everyone knows everyone else's business even if they don't speak to the people they are gossiping about. Some of the more exciting points were unplanned and unforeseen activities that are suddenly revealed closer to the end of the novel. One of my favorite moments was when Dr. Booshy's true personality is revealed when his relationship with Zaita, the town crippler, is revealed through some of their nefarious late-night activities. It was a surprising reveal and changed the way I viewed them and others in the alley.
The list of characters is extensive. My favorites were Hamida, the alley's beauty, Radwan Hussainy, the alley's spiritual leader and advisor, and Abbas, a young barber who loves Hamida. There is no real villain to the piece, although Zaita is the closest resemblance. He cripples people so that they can become professional beggars. There are all types of characters for every type of reader, and although all the stories don't have a finality to them, the reader is left with a realistic impression that this was just another few days in the life of one alley. There are more stories that lie in wait for those who escape the despair this time around.
There are many themes and motifs in this novel, which are tied together with the message and purpose of the author. One of the main themes that stood out to me was the affect that the British had on Egypt's development, even in such an insignificant place as this one alley. Since the novel takes place during WWII, there is the constant presence of war and fighting, which permeates the activities of the inhabitants of the alley. Many of the younger characters who are trying to leave the alley use the war as a means of escape. By serving at a trading post under the British army, they are able to live in a bigger city, save up money, and hopefully escape the poverty that is their destiny. Later in the novel, readers are introduced to a pimp that shows how the British army men want dark women who can dance a certain way to act as their "friends" during their brief stay in Cairo. There is even a school for prostitutes in which they are taught to look, act, and dress a certain way. Everything the women are taught is used to impress the seemingly rich, white soldiers.
Anger and violence is a major theme in the novel. The people in the alley feel helpless to escape their fates; everything has a fatalistic quality to it. Because of the injustices and fears the characters face everyday, they lash out at those closest to them or cheat others in order to get a small respite in their doldrum lives. Radwan Hussainy has the toughest job out of all those in the alley because he must advise all that despair. His message is usually the same: Leave everything in the hands of Allah, which is translated to God in my version of the text. People don't always listen to him, and they end up causing more harm to themselves than good. The preachings and teachings of Hussainy contrasts nicely with all the destruction the selfish people of the alley cause each other. If only they listened to what God wants rather than what they want, perhaps life would be easier and less disappointing.
By the end of the novel, situations have changed for different characters. For example, one person is now disconnected with life after having a brush with death while another has found wealth through a "career" change and a new state of mind. Whether or not these changes are for the better is asked but not answered. In the end, the truth lies with the perspective of each character, which aren't clearly defined. Midaq Alley ends with a climatic event that won't leave readers disappointed.
Since the book is written in a straight-forward manner, readers of any age would enjoy it. However, if they are unfamiliar with Egypt and the Islam religion, certain parts might seem confusing. The characters and the setting really make this book stand out, and although I was saddened by the ending, I was not disappointed by the outcome. In fact, I guessed some of the tragedies while others were still able to surprise me. I've never read a book quite like Mahfouz's, and I look forward to reading more of his novels in the future.
This novel is the perfect distillation of Mafouz' brilliance as a writer. A slice-of-life in Midaq Alley, the characters are carefully wrought and distinct, complete with idiosyncrasies. From Uum Hamida, who brokers a marriage for the well-heeled Mrs. Saniya Afify, to Zaitas the cripple-maker, each has a role in the tapestry of life as lived in the alley.Like the Cairo Trilogy, Mafouz creates his own rhythm and style while adapting the novel format, one not commonly found in Arabic literature when … more
Written in the 1940s, this novel by the Egyptian Nobel laureate Mahfouz deals with the plight of impoverished classes in an old quarter of Cairo. The lives and situations depicted create an atmosphere of sadness and tragic realism. Indeed, few of the characters are happy or successful. Protagonist Hamida, an orphan raised by a foster mother, is drawn into prostitution. Kirsha, the owner of a cafe in the alley, is a drug addict and a lustful homosexual. Zaita makes a living by disfiguring people so that they can become successful beggars. Transcending time and place, the social issues treated here are relevant to many Arab countries today. With this satisfying tale, Mahfouz, often called the Charles Dickens of Arabic literature, achieves a high level of excellence as a novelist and storyteller. Highly recommended. - Ali Houissa, Cornell Univ., Ithaca, N.Y. Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.