Cairo Egypt, as well as the rest of the world today, is going through fast changes quite often. In Midaq Alley, Naguib Mafhouz slows down the fast paced changes in Cairo during World War 2 by revealing the intimate lives of the Alley inhabitants. The roles that the characters are born into are no longer wanted by the younger generations due to the hopeful gains offered in the material world. By referring to and utilizing the four 20th century themes of, global interrelatedness, identity and difference, the rise of the mass of society, and technology versus nature while reading, the audience can better understand life in the Middle East.
Midaq Alley helps make clear what the innermost workings and true spirits of Arab population and culture are, and how they face the same struggles as the rest of the world does. In order to understand how global interrelatedness is a vital subject in Midaq Alley, one must pay attention to what is occurring in the silent but transparent background of the story. Although there is no mention of exactly why the British Army is in Cairo during World War II, their presence directly affects the inhabitants of the Alley.
The military is providing Egyptian natives many employment opportunities, and as a result, it has given them wealth and stability that they never thought was attainable. Amongst the somewhat fortunate people of the Alley that are employed are the love blinded Abbas Hilu and one of the Alley’s cleverest, Hussain Kirsha, son of the cafe owner Kirsha. Hussain’s, “daily wages were now thirty piasters compared to the three piasters in his first job” (Mafhouz 33).
If it were not for British occupation, Hussain would not have been able to afford his unimaginable new life comforts such as fine dining, clothing, cabarets and women. Not only had British occupation affected the job market in Egypt, it had affected societal norms and conducts in Egypt. For instance, the girls, “from the Darasa district, who, taking advantage of wartime employment opportunities, ignored custom and tradition and now worked in public places” (Mafhouz 40). Hussain tells Abbas to work for the British Army and says, “It’s a gold mine that will never be exhausted! (Mafhouz 36). Although comfortable in the alley and reluctant to leave, Abbas sets out to Tell el-Kebir in order to gain British employment and save enough money to provide for his loud and obnoxious fiance Hamida. Unfortunately for Hussain, he is laid off, and ends up penniless due to his lack of frugality and his over indulgences. Hussain relied too heavily on British occupation and firmly believed the word of mouth on base that the, “war would never end and that Hitler would fight for decades and then eventually attack” (Mafhouz 212).
Undoubtedly, the British had aroused the economy by providing many jobs and pumping money into local prostitution. More importantly, the audience can see that the war is nearing an end due to the job layoffs, and that military occupation is also coming to a halt which ultimately will lead to full freedom of the Egyptians under British occupation. The personal struggles and shortcomings of the people in the Alley illustrate how religion, blatant disregard for it, and greed can be a source of many identity and differential difficulties.
After Hussain lost his job and money he resorted to alcohol and denounced religion. His position on living is that, “life is more bitter than alcohol and its effects are far worse”(Mafhouz 249). Although Hussain’s, “foster sister,” is attracted to Abbas’ position in the Alley and his physical features, she is driven by her greed and lust for the finest things money can buy. Her greed is what eventually makes Abbas a distant memory to her and leads her into the arms of Ibrahim Faraj and almost into the arms of Samir Alwan, who also has some issues of his own.
Samir Alwan oversteps class and marital boundaries by deciding to set up a marriage to Hamida through Umm Hamida. Not only does he oversteps class and disregards her prior engagements to Abba, he ignores the age difference. He goes into great sensual detail about how he watched her grow up from a twig into a slender and endowed 20 year old. Samir’s heart attack essentially leads Hamida to Ibrahim who believes she is, “a whore by instinct”(Mafhouz 198). Ibrahim greatly manipulated her naivety, anger, and lack of life experience.
Her anger was told most presently during their first meeting when, “her blood boiled. She wanted to humiliate him with loud curses in front of the whole crowd”(Mafhouz 157). Hamidas’ youngness and lack of direction can be seen when Hamida gave into Ibrahim’s charm and entered defeated into his world of prostitution. This can be further grasped when the narrator said, “She felt that life was the only enemy she did not know how to deal with”(Mafhouz 165). The cafe owner Kirsha brought disgrace to his family and gossip to the Alley by his lust for and evening sprees with young boys.
In turn, Mrs. Kirsha turns to Radwan Hussainy as a last resort for guidance and sums up Kirsha’s struggles by telling him that, “He is completely immoral and neither his age, his wife, nor children can cure his lechery”(Mafhouz 91). More townspeople, such as the filthy cripple maker Zaita and the dirty and uneducated dentist Dr. Booshy, can be seen later in the story giving into their desires by robbing graves for gold teeth plates. This affected all of the townspeople greatly, more so Mrs. Afify who had been given a set of gold teeth from Dr. Booshy (Mafhouz 229).
The paramount occurrence of rising of the mass society is within the first scene of the story in which Kirsha disbands the poet reciter from the cafe. Although the old man had been performing in the cafe for over 20 years, Kirsha rids him by stating, “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” (Mafhouz 6). Because of the radio being new and an extremely popular form of mass communication, it essentially replaced a poor man’s life and wellbeing.
Mass consumerism is heavily related to Samir Alwan because the war had made him trade in commodities such as tea and it made him a large amount of money. No longer was Samir limited to retail sail but he, “had become active in the black market”(Mafhouz 62), which as a result, allowed the people of Cairo to purchase more and put prosperity in his work and family. Mass politics is interconnected with the arrival of Wafd party candidate Ibrahim Farhat. To attract all the inhabitants of the alley, microphones and speakers are setup in the town center and a stage is decked with pictures of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Nahas and Ibrahim Farhat.
Ibrahim Farhat wins the hearts of the Alley by going door to door, sincerely greeting the people. He also wins their hearts by giving them an entertaining evening filled with musicians and dancing, promising rewards, payment for support (as he did with Kirsha), and, “miracle after miracle” (Mafhouz 153). The spread of mass politics can be seen in Uncle Kamils shop, where there is a picture of Mustafa al-Nahas. “Even in the grocer’s in Sanadiqiya Street there were two pictures of the nationalist leaders, one of Saad Zaghlul and the other of Mustafa al-Nahas. And in Kirsha’s cafe there was a picture if the Khedive Abbas” (Mafhouz 48). The commonplace of such photos in their society embodies that national identity is of great importance to the people of the Alley and of Egypt. Although we do not see technology allowing humankind to destroy physical nature in Midaq Alley, we can see that it can aid in human development. Since the British were incapable of sending their needed supplies from home to Egypt, they hired a great deal of Egyptians to work for them. The amount of people they hired helped the Egyptian economy and the amount of money the British invested during the war allowed Egyptians to start making their own advances in vital job fields.
Additionally, technology is a driving force that can easily destroy human nature. Modern technology was looked at as a way to live a better life to the three young characters, Hussein, Abbas, and Hamida. In the Alley, there was very little of modern technology, and each of these young individuals had their own reasons to go after it. Hussein was motivated to live a different life in which he could become a gentleman, live the modern way, and marry a respectable woman. Abbas was perfectly content living an average life making just enough money to get by, until he fell in love with Hamida.
He wanted to work on the British military base just as Hussein did so he can save up money for his greedy fiance. For Hamida, she was driven by a lust for nice dresses, jewelry, and up-to-date amenities. This lust landed her on Sharif Pasha Street buying the nostalgic things in life by prostituting herself. The desire to live in a more technologically advanced world left Hussein broke and ashamed, leads Abbas to his brutal death inflicted from drunken British soldiers, and left Hamida a broken woman, lost and without the purity and hope that she once had in the Alley.
Through the utilization and interaction of the four 20th century themes, the vibrant life in Midaq Alley and its surroundings can be seen much more clearly. Similarly, the newest generations today want to go above and beyond what their parents have done, and what generations before them have accomplished. These desires and dreams ultimately lead to advances in those four themes, thus furthering the course of history. Success, wealth, and progression are appealing to people all over the globe, and unfortunate for individuals like Abbas, the wrong path can be taken to that place in life can lead to heartbreak, or even worse, death.