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An Introduction to Naguib Mahfouz and Midaq Alley

Ghazala Hashmi English Department J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College

aguib Mahfouz (1911- ) is the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Awarded to Mahfouz in 1988, the Nobel Prize brought international recognition to a writer who was already immensely popular in Egypt and throughout the Arabic-speaking community. Mahfouzs novels vary from allegory to realism, from social and political commentary to keen observations of common life, and from the times of the Pharaohs to modern Egypt. Mahfouz has often insisted that he is, first and foremost, simply a storyteller. While he is an acknowledged master of spinning tales, Mahfouzs complex characters and the moral ambiguities that encircle his texts have to remind us of writers such as Dickens, Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Camus. As a writer, he credits the influence of such 19th and early 20th century European writers on his own art. Still, Mahfouz also reminds his newly-expanding international audience that he shares his Nobel with the Arabic language itself, a rich and melodious speech that defines his characters and the culture he explores in his novels. Midaq Alley (Zuqaq al-Midaq) was one of Mahfouzs early novels, and it remains among his most popular. A narrative full of intriguing, and sometimes bizarre characters, the novel explores the complex lives of the mainly lower-class residents of Midaq Alley. The majority of the novels characters are unabashedly self-serving, and ye t their lives weave together in patterns of communal fate. And while the novel focuses tightly on the slim life of Midaq Alley, we are constantly reminded of the bustle of Cairo, its rich blend of the early Egyptian and Islamic civilizations, the presence of the West in the form of the British army, and the echoes of the World War that is being waged globally. Set in Cairo during the 1940s, the novel raises for us a variety of questions and issues: Cultural Issues Many of the novels characters focus on the power and privilege that comes from wealth. What does Midaq Alley tell us about the role of wealth in this society?
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Through Zaita, the cripple-maker, Mahfouz introduces us to the strange world of professional beggars. Why is Zaitas profession and the pride with which he practices it accepted nonchalantly by the residents of Midaq Alley? What does the novel tell us about the social and cultural expectations for men and women in the Cairo of the 1940s? Why do some members of the Alley regard Ha midas prostitution as an assault on their personal honor? What aspects of the culture strike you as similar to your own? Which ones are very different? What role do the family and the community play in the novel? Religious Issues What role does Islam play in the lives of the characters of Midaq Alley? Of the two specifically religious characters in the novel, one is a mystic while the other is a pious and respected leader of the alley. What kind of influence do these religious men assert upon the other characters? Are the characters fatalistic about their abilities to control their own lives, or do they use religious determinism when it is convenient for them? Historical Issues What is the novel saying about the British presence in Egypt? World War II is raging in the background of Midaq Alley. Why does it not play a more prominent role, and what is its significance to the novel? Does the novel make a political protest against the imperial influence of Western societies? Literary Issues Hamida is an orphan; does this condition restrict or release her in the eyes of society? What does the death of Abbas Hilu represent?

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Does fate play a role in the novel, and to what extent are the characters responsible for their own choices? Why is Sheikh Darwish an important figure, and how are we to read his odd utterances? While Mahfouz certainly explores universal themes of love, betrayal, loss and humor, do any aspects of the novels style and structure make it uniquely Arab? The Central Characters of Midaq Alley
Sheikh Darwish was once a teacher in religious foundation schools; the intrusion of governmental controls resulted in his demotion and his eventual psychological breakdown. Though he has no home and no familial connections, he is strangely at home everywhere. The residents of the alley regard him as a spiritual mystic. Kirsha owns the caf that is the central focal point of Midaq Alley. A hashish addict, a seller of narcotics, and a man who is attracted to young boys, Kirsha provides much fodder for the gossips of Midaq Alley. Mrs. Kirsha despises her husband and is humiliated by his relationships with young boys. She has a harsh tongue and is not afraid to use it against her husband. Mrs. Kirsha nursed the orphaned Hamida along with her son Hussain when both were infants; she thus became a foster mother to Hamida and Hussain became the orphans foster brother. Hussain Kirsha is Kirshas son who despises the low-class life of Midaq Alley. Contemptuous of the alleys residents, he seeks to escape a similar fate by working in a British Army camp. Sanker is the waiter in Kirshas cafe. Radwan Hussainy is pious Muslim and regarded by the residents of the alley as a religious scholar; he is often called upon to settle their disputes and to intercede in times of trouble. Radwan Hussainy is a Job-like character: he has lost all of his children to death, and his faith grows stronger through suffering. He owns one of the two residences of Midaq Alley; Abbas and Uncle Kamil live on the first floor; Kirshas family lives on the third floor. Radwan Hussainy is unsparingly tolerant of everyone else, but he is cruel and controlling of his faithful and subservient wife. Mrs. Saniyya Afify is a wealthy and miserly widow who owns the second residence of the alley. She rents out the first floor to Dr. Booshy on first floor, and the second floor to Umm Hamida and Hamida. A woman nearly fifty years old, she is driven inexplicably to remarry and prefers young men. Salim Alwan is the proprietor of a perfume company and a thriving business in black market goods. Salim Alwan has an insatiable sexual appetite that is nurtured by an exotic aphrodisiac that he consumes every day. Hamida is the adopted daughter of Umm Hamida. Her birth mother worked with Umm Hamida before her death in childbirth; her father is unknown and presumed dead. Hamida is beautiful, vain, utterly self-centered, and driven by the need for material wealth. JSRCC Book Discussion Series Organized by the Diversity Committee Page 3

Umm Hamida earns her income as a bath attendant and as an arranger of marriages. Uncle Kamil owns a sweet shop and is the best friend of Abbas, the barber. Abbas Hilu is a young man of the Alley; a barber by profession, he loves the alley deeply and is utterly infatuated with the beautiful Hamida. Dr. Booshy is the unlicensed and questionably qualified dentist who practices his dark art in conjunction with the Zaita. Zaita is the "Cripple Maker who makes a living by crippling healthy people so that they can beg. He collects a portion of their earnings. He is a hideous and repulsive character; he lives in squalor in the tiny room he rents from Husniyya and Jaada. Husniyya and Jaada are the bakers of Midaq Alley. Ibrahim Faraj is the skilled and persuasive pimp who is able to lure Hamida away from the alley and into the world of prostitution. He markets her services directly to the Westerners who are in Cairo during this time.

Books by Naguib Mahfouz


The following texts have been translated into English and are available in paperback; the dates provided represent the original publication in Arabic.

The Beginning and the End - 1949 Palace of Desire - 1957 Children of the Alley 1959 Autumn Quail - 1962 The Search - 1964 Adrift on the Nile - 1966 Miramar - 1967 The Harafish - 1977 Wedding Song - 1981

Palace Walk - 1956 Sugar Street - 1957 The Thief and the Dogs - 1961 The Time and the Place - 1962 The Beggar - 1965 Midaq Alley - 1966 Respected Sir - 1975 Arabian Nights and Days - 1979 The Journey of Ibn Fattouma - 1983

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