Naguib Mahfouz, "Midaq Alley"

A Book Review by Louis Proyect

April 14, 2003

Naguib Mahfouz, Midaq Alley - Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (1992 - paperback); ISBN: 0385264763

A decisive factor in the ongoing war against Arab peoples is the general lack of knowledge about and sympathy for their culture. To destroy a people, it is much easier to do so under a cloak of ignorance and misrepresentation. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988, Egypt's Naguib Mahfouz was probably regarded with contempt in some quarters as just another obscure figure from the Third World selected on some sort of affirmative action basis. Any objective reader, however, would be richly rewarded by a reading of one of the world's greatest novelists in any language -- especially his early "Midaq Alley," the subject of this review.

When you read Mahfouz, especially his earlier work, you are transported into the world of Zola or Balzac. Using the sort of naturalistic style that was rapidly going out of fashion in the European and American temples of taste when he launched his writing career, Mahfouz chose to write about the humble people of Cairo who were trapped in a web of economic and social relationships beyond their control.

The theme of "Midaq Alley" cuts to the heart of Arab society. Namely, it shows how a group of characters living in the same slum neighborhood responds to the combined promise and threat of Western-influenced modernization. The opening sentences of "Midaq Alley" points to a world bypassed by history:

"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 or 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. How could it be otherwise with its stone-paved surface leading directly to the historic Sanadiqiya Street. And then there is its coffeeshop known as 'Kirsha's.' Its walls decorated with multicolored arabesques, now crumbling, give off strong odors from the medicines of olden times, smells which have now become the spices and folk-cures of today and tomorrow . . ."

But all is not as it seems. In short order, we are plunged into the reality of Kirsha's coffeeshop, where antiquity is being assaulted in all directions. When a "senile old man" begins to play his two-stringed fiddle in accompaniment to a "prayer for the prophet," he is shouted down by the proprietor: "Are you going to force your recitations on us? That's the end -- the end! Didn't I warn you last week?"

Kirsha tells the old poet-singer that he has been bypassed by history. "We know all 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 . . ."

Of all the people in the neighborhood who are yearning for an escape from tradition and the poverty that seems to be its permanent handmaiden, none stands out more than the young and beautiful Hamida who is the novel's central character. Living with her adoptive mother, the matchmaker Umm Hamida, she sneers at the prospective husbands who would be the ostensible pathway toward a more prosperous future. They are all "nonentities."

The young Hamida envies women who have broken free of traditional bonds, especially the Jewish factory girls. She tells her mother, "If you had seen the factory girls! You should just see those Jewish girls who go to work. They all go about in nice clothes. Well, what is the point of life then if we can't wear what we want?"

Such are the blandishments of wage-labor. In exchange for the monotony and danger of the shop floor, money can provide access to consumer goods and a modicum of independence. This is one of the ways that global capitalism traditionally overcomes local resistance. When you can combine the carrot with the stick, an exploited people -- especially women yearning to rid themselves of patriarchal bonds -- might "elect" to become wage-slaves. As Debbie Nathan points out in a January 13, 1997 Nation Magazine article ("Death Comes to the Maquila: a Border Story"), the temptations that Hamida succumbed to are still very much with us:

Miles from their neighborhoods and with paycheck in hand, they have access to urban diversions that their brothers always had but that "proper" girls used to be denied: public nightlife, friendship based on affinity rather than kin and, most momentously, sex. According to University of Chicago sociologist Leslie Salzinger, who has worked on Juixez assembly lines, even girls who still live at home with their parents enjoy these pleasures.

Indeed, Salzinger says, many girls have told her that they take maquila jobs not for survival but for independence: to buy clothes with their own money and to get out of their houses and socialize. (Affluent kids do this at school, but for the working class, education is a luxury. Mexico guarantees public schooling only to sixth grade.)
Hamida eventually agrees to marry Abbas, a neighborhood barber who she really doesn't care for but who might be a ticket out of her mother's household. Not only is he poor, he is a yokel in Hamida's eyes. When he initially becomes her suitor, she is disgusted by what ordinarily constitutes the most important element of any marriage, his undying love. Always the astute psychologist, Mahfouz observes, "In spite of her limited experience in life, she was aware of the great gulf between this humble young man and her own greedy ambitions which could ignite her natural aggressiveness and turn it into uncontrollable savagery and violence. She would be wildly happy if she saw a look of defiance or self-confidence in anyone's eyes, but this look of simple humility in Abbas' eyes left her emotionless."

She only decides to consider his marriage offer after discovering his own plans for escaping Midaq Alley. Walking next to her on the street, as she tries to fend off his advances, he finally utters the magic words that open up, if not her heart, at least her coldly calculating brain. "Yes, I am going to put my trust in God and try my luck like the others. I am going to work for the British Army and I might be as successful as your brother Hussain!"

Abbas departs Midaq Alley to join other local residents as modern-day equivalents of camp followers of the medieval past, who made livings sharpening swords, cutting hair or slaking the lust of soldiers. Indeed, while Abbas is off cutting hair for the colonizers, Hamida becomes a prostitute servicing the needs of the British and American troops in the waning months of WWII.

When being groomed in the ways of the world's oldest profession, her pimp Ibrahim Faraj advises her how to be more attractive to his clients. She agrees to be called "Titi" from now on, a name that "will amuse Englishmen and Americans and one which their twisted tongues can easily pronounce." Hamida accepted this change and everything else that goes with it: "She realized that he considered her name, like her old clothes, as something to be discarded and forgotten." The pimp has even provided an English teacher for his whores, even though the best place to learn the language is on the job. Pointing to his other girls, Faraj advises Hamida:

"Oh, they're getting better. I keep telling them that they can't learn a language just by memorizing words and phrases. The only way to learn is by experience. The taverns and hotels are the best schools and my lessons merely clarify information which may be muddled."

Unfortunately for Abbas and the other Midaq Alley denizens, the war does not go on forever and they find themselves unemployed. His friend Hussain complains, "How can it have ended so quickly? Everybody hoped that Hitler would be able to prolong it indefinitely. It's our bad luck that's brought it to an end."

Eventually when Abbas discovers Hamida in the company of British troops at a local tavern, he allows all the "sorrow, disappointment and despair he had suffered in the past three days to . . . burst forth in a mad frenzy." After he throws empty beer glasses into her face, the troops beat and stomp him to death.

In "Midaq Alley," there is no final understanding among the novel's character about why they suffer, least of all a political one. Their choices appear limited between a kind of blind acceptance of "god's will" and the meager outlets afforded by factory jobs or army bases of the occupying power of the moment.

Despite the bleakness of the novel's outlook, Naguib Mahfouz himself has been committed to social justice and national redemption throughout his entire life. As he once pointed out, "In all my writing, you will find politics. You may find a story which ignores love, or any other subject, but not politics; it is the very axis of our thinking." Mahfouz, who is now 93, was present at the Egyptian revolution of 1919 about which he wrote:

"From a small room on the roof I used to see the demonstrations of the 1919 revolution. I saw women take part in the demonstrations on donkey-drawn carts. . .I often saw English soldiers firing back at the demonstrators. . .My mother used to pull me back from the window, but I wanted to see everything."

Mahfouz was not only committed to social justice, he was also highly critical of religious fundamentalism, so expressed throughout his writing career. In 1994, he was stabbed in the neck by Islamic fanatics who took objection to his "Children of Gebelawi," which represents Mohammad in less than flattering terms, although less egregiously than Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses."

Mahfouz has also found himself at odds with the Egyptian government, which has resented the openly anti-Nasserite posture taken in novels such as the 1967 Miramar. Throughout it all, he has maintained a love of his country and equanimity in face of repeated censorship and violent attack.

In his Nobel Speech, he spoke for the millions who are now facing death and destruction from the most powerful imperialist country in the history of the world:

"You may be wondering: This man coming from the third world, how did he find the peace of mind to write stories? You are perfectly right. I come from a world labouring under the burden of debts whose paying back exposes it to starvation or very close to it. Some of its people perish in Asia from floods, others do so in Africa from famine. In South Africa millions have been undone with rejection and with deprivation of all human rights in the age of human rights, as though they were not counted among humans. In the West Bank and Gaza there are people who are lost in spite of the fact that they are living on their own land; land of their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers. They have risen to demand the first right secured by primitive Man; namely, that they should have their proper place recognized by others as their own. They were paid back for their brave and noble move -- men, women, youths and children alike -- by the breaking of bones, killing with bullets, destroying of houses and torture in prisons and camps. Surrounding them are 150 million Arabs following what is happening in anger and grief. This threatens the area with a disaster if it is not saved by the wisdom of those desirous of a just and comprehensive peace."

     (Full Nobel Speech: http://www.nobel.se/literature/laureates/1988/mahfouz-lecture.html)

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Louis Proyect is a computer programmer at Columbia University and a long-time peace activist and socialist. He is also the moderator of the Marxism mailing list at www.marxmail.org. He writes a bi-monthly book review for Swans.

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Published April 14, 2003
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