Naguib Mahfouz

Midaq Alley

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Midaq Alley Summary

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Midaq Alley is a 1947 novel by Egyptian Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz. First published in English in 1966, its original title is Zuqāq al-Midaq. It is set in a bustling back alley of Cairo, Egypt called Midaq Alley, whose denizens’ lives reflect the larger, increasingly cosmopolitan and urbanized world of the 1940s. Mahfouz portrays Cairo as it teeters on the precipice of modernization, lurching inexorably into the modern era. The novel is also concerned with the transformations in national identity that Egyptians experienced during this decade, partly as a result of World War II and partial British occupation of Cairo.

The novel describes Midaq Alley as a poor, narrow stretch of road off the main streets of Cairo that contains a handful of homes and stores. Each night, many local men meet in a cafe owned by Hussain Kirsha. The beginning of the novel introduces a large cast of characters; these include a barber, Abbas; his friend and candy store owner, Uncle Kamil; a lonely widow, Saniya Afify; her tenant, Umm Hamida, who professionally arranges marriages; and her beautiful daughter, Hamida. There is also a bakery owned by a wife and husband, Husniya and Jaada. The bakery’s small auxiliary house is rented by Zaita, a man who cripples panhandlers so that they can make more money. He gets his customers via a fraudulent budget “dentist,” Dr. Booshy.

Saniya tells Umm Hamida that she wishes to find a new husband, and asks for her help. Umm Hamida is highly critical of the men in the area, believing none are eligible partners, including Abbas, who is very smitten with her. She hopes that a rich man will one day marry her and take her away from Midaq Alley. Abbas, in contrast, considers the alley his true home. Hussain Kirsha, who has worked in the British Army that now occupies part of Cairo, recommends that Abbas use their occupation to make money and win the daughter Hamida’s attention. Mr. Kirsha is a closeted homosexual; his wife knows and is dismayed, but is unable to do anything about it. Meanwhile, a wealthy man named Salim Alwan runs a black market operation in the alley, and begins to desire Hamida while growing increasingly detached from his wife.

As tensions grow between Mr. and Mrs. Kirsha, Abbas decides to tell the daughter Hamida he loves her. He states that he will care for her by working in the British Army, and she agrees to an engagement. He soon leaves to serve the army for a minimum of one year. Hussain Kirsha leaves the alley, bitter that Abbas has escaped poverty before him. Umm Hamida finds a husband for Saniya Afifi: a younger civil employee named Ahmad Effendi Talbat. Though he is not wealthy, Mrs. Afify is elated. Salim Alwan asks Umm Hamida for permission to ask for her daughter Hamida’s engagement. Umm Hamida is shocked to hear that she is already engaged to Abbas. When she finds Salim Alwan to break the news, she learns that he has just had a heart attack. Still, the momentary possibility of marrying a rich man compels Hamida to cancel her engagement to Abbas. She later meets a middle-class man, Ibrahim Faraj, during a political rally in Midaq Alley. Salim Alwan recovers from his heart attack, but decides not to pursue Hamida for his own health.

Ibrahim takes Hamida to his beautiful home in a wealthier part of town. She becomes distraught after quickly realizing that he intends not to marry her, but to train her to become a prostitute. Hamida moves in with him anyways, learns how to speak English and dance, and learns the ins and outs of the trade. She adopts the prostitute name Titi, and continues to cling to the hope that Ibrahim might love her. Having been laid off from the army as the end of the war approaches, Hussain Kirsha returns to Midaq Alley with his wife and brother-in-law. His father, initially angry at his return, becomes infatuated with his brother-in-law and lets them stay. Dr. Booshy and Zaita are caught grave-robbing to steal a dead man’s gold teeth. Mrs. Saniya Afify pulls out her own gold teeth which were implanted by the false doctor.

When Abbas returns to Midaq Alley, Uncle Kamil tells him that Hamida has vanished. He soon finds out that she is with another man, and seeks revenge. When he finds her, she is in the middle of a fight with Ibrahim, and tells Abbas that he abducted her. She tells him where Ibrahim will be the following Sunday. Radwan Hussainy leaves for a pilgrimage to Mecca and advises Abbas to control his passions. Abbas ignores him, and instead tells Hussain Kirsha that he intends to get back at Ibrahim on Sunday. They go to a bar, where they witness Hamida flirting with British soldiers. He throws a glass at her face, greatly injuring her. The British soldiers beat Abbas to death.

Midaq Alley reels from the tragic death, but soon rebounds. Hamida’s physical and emotional wounds begin to heal, and she reconnects with her adoptive mother. Mr. Booshy’s old apartment is occupied by a new family. The alley expectantly awaits Radwan Hussiny’s return from his pilgrimage to Mecca, suggesting its eventual return to harmony.