"Abbas now marveled at the strength of love, its power and its strange magic. He thought it right that God had created mankind capable of love and then left the task of developing life to the fertility of love."
This quote reflects the purity of Abbas' heart at the beginning of the novel. He is smitten with Hamida, and absolutely idealistic about their potential union. He has yet to consider Midaq Alley as insufficient, and instead imagines a future where love and simple pleasures will ensure their happiness. The extent of this idealism helps explain why his tragedy is so terrible - when the fantasy comes crashing down, he responds with an anger as intense as this idealism once was. One can see in this story a reflection of both colonial disappointments and human nature in general.
"He [Kirsha] was a narcotics peddler and accustomed to doing his business under a veil of darkness. Normal life had eluded him and he had become a prey to perversions."
Mahfouz assigns a label of "normal" to an honest, straightforward life, perhaps like Abbas or Uncle Kamil would. Kirsha, however, finds no joy in these "normal" pursuits. He has a dark hunger within him that can only be satisfied by indulging his most basic desires. Within the societal (and religious) construct of Midaq Alley, Kirsha's activities are "perversions," although he refuses to consider them as anomalous. Instead, he seeks his own happiness, with little care for how others see it. While Mahfouz does not make any statement about whether conformity is a positive or negative attribute, he certainly uses Kirsha to explore how the pressure of conformity resonates throughout most communities.
“He was, in fact, a veritable crouching tiger, willing to cringe and fawn until he mastered his adversary, and woe to anyone he did master! Experience had taught him that this gentleman and others like him were enemies with whom must be friendly. They were, as he put it, useful devils.”
This is a description of the businessman, Salim Alwan. Mahfouz uses the word "devil" throughout the novel, generally to describe when someone has gone awry - like when Hamida becomes a prostitute or when Dr. Booshy robs a grave. Salim Alwan, however, embraces his devilish qualities. His cutthroat nature is what has made him so rich. He does not expect kindness from anyone, and therefore offers no kindness back. He is so ambitious that he sacrifices his integrity, and eventually becomes a prisoner of his own hunger for power. However, these attitudes do little to prepare him for the nature of death. After his heart attack, fear of death becomes more powerful than any of his selfish desires. In Salim Alwan's story is a proverb-like message about the wonder and limitations of a life devoted to wealth.
"Satan finds the doors of youth an easy entrance and he slips in both secretly and openly to spread his havoc. We should do all we can do to prevent the doors of youth opening to him and keep them tightly closed. Just think of elderly men to whom age has given the keys of respectability. What would be the situation if we were to see them deliberately opening these doors and calling out in invitation to the devil?"
Radwan Hussainy's words of warning to Kirsha prove prophetic, and touch at the theme of sin that permeates the novel. Kirsha does not heed the advice, which could also be applicable to Dr. Booshy, Mrs. Saniya Afify, and Salim Alwan. These characters fall prey to greed, vanity, and arrogance, respectively. Further, all four sin by trying to recapture a youthful air that they should no longer seek because of their age. However, the advice best applies to the youthful Hamida, who chose Abbas as a respectable, sensible match. However, when the door to temptation opens, she proves her youthful indiscretion by entering into a sinful lifestyle that will define the rest of her days, and cause great tragedy for the otherwise innocent Abbas. Hussainy both recognizes the human tendency towards sin, and implies our potential to transcend that tendency if we try. In many ways, this philosophy aligns with that which Mahfouz suggests through his stories.
"It's fantastic the way these young men act. Why, they scarcely have a penny to their names, yet they see no reason why they shouldn't get married and populate the whole alley with children who get their food from garbage carts."
When Salim Alwan learns that Hamida is already engaged to Abbas, he rants with these words. The quote reveals both his dislike of his neighbors, and the generational divide that plagues both Midaq Alley and Eyptian culture overall. People like Abbas are ironically more free in some ways because they can marry and procreate as they want. 'Respectable' folk have to live up to a different code. Of course, these 'respectable' folk also have less potential to end up in "garbage carts." Further, these words reveal Salim Alwan's great sin - he wants to act as a young man but live as an older man; he cannot have it both ways, and his heart attack is arguably the result of attempting to do just that. Salim Alwan's words are spoken from resentment, but they resonate with many of the novel's themes.
"The barber is young and Mr. Alwan is old; the barber is of the same class as Hamida and Mr. Alwan is not. The marriage of a man like Alwan to a girl like your daughter is bound to bring problems which will make her unhappy."
In counseling Umm Hamida not to break off Hamida's first engagement, Radwan Hussainy projects a rather progressive view. Most of the marriages in the alley reflect their era through being mostly transactional matches. However, Hussainy here speaks of an individual's happiness as a criterion for a happy marriage. He suggests that the girl's ambitions might be realized through a match like Salim Alwan, though her happiness would be compromised. He thereby acknowledges the existence of individuals behind the social construct. Of course, his idea of happiness is based around social class, but it is still telling that he sees happiness as the goal. Perhaps this reveals that he has learned from his own misfortune; certainly, it revels an attitude that a couple like the Kirshas could have benefitted from having.
"If money is the aim and object of those who squabble for power, then there is clearly no harm in money being the objective of the poor voters."
The scenes with the politician Ibrahim Farhat underscore how Midaq Alley is a microcosm for Egyptian society between the revolutions of 1919 and 1952. Kirsha's attitude, as reflected here, comes as a response to accusations of accepting bribes. Kirsha had once been politically active, but has grown pessimistic and opportunistic about politics. Because the politicians to whom he had formerly devoted his energies were selfish and corrupt, he saw no reason that a "poor voter" like himself should not engage in the same activity. This pessimism reflects that of not only Mahfouz but also many in Egypt who saw their attempts to bring change only usher in different, equally depressing, problems.
"Kirsha thought of Hitler as the world's greatest bully; indeed his admiration for him stemmed from what he heard of his cruelty and barbarity. He wished him success, viewing him like those mythical bravados of literature Antar and Abu Zaid."
It is unusual to find literature from this time period that reflects a positive view of Hitler. However, this attitude - which is shared by more than just Kirsha - reflects both the way that Midaq Alley is separated from the rest of the world, and the way that the poor often must look out for themselves. The presence of British forces in Egypt has caused many problems for Cairo, but it has also allowed the poor in places like the alley to find new sources of income. The residents of the alley are not involved in Hitler's barbarity. Instead, in a world that seems to have little use for them, they are drawn towards anything of which they can take advantage. The prolonged Allied presence is good for them, and they have little cause to judge Hitler by moral terms. They must take care of themselves, and so Hitler's success is deemed a positive.
"What hopeless wretches we are. Our country is pitiful and so are the people. Why is it that the only time we find a little happiness is when the world is involved in a bloody war? Surely it's only the devil who has pity on us in this world."
Hussain is young and arrogant in the early part of the novel, but grows depressive and pessimistic after squandering the money made working for the army. While living with his parents and potentially pregnant wife, he is able to see how truly desperate poverty can make people. This idea, that dreams and ambitions can make reality all the more difficult, resonates throughout the novel, and gets a clear representation here. Because he has seen the potential for luxury, Hussain is all the more depressed to live without it. This comment on the fleeting nature of happiness applies both to Hussain's focus on material things, and to the greater imperfection of life experienced by others like Abbas and Hamida.
"Some consider that such tragedies afflicting apparently blameless people are signs of revengeful justice, the wisdom of which is beyond the understanding of most people. So you will hear them say that if the bereaved father, for example, thought deeply, he would realize his loss was just a punishment for some sin either he or his forebears committed. Yet surely God is more just and merciful than to treat the innocent as the guilty..."
Before leaving on his hajj, Radwan Hussainy shares some of his wisdom. Here, he acknowledges the existence of tragedy, but encourages his neighbors to open up their myopic views to gain some perspective about life. He suggests that humans have the power to overcome tragedy if they are willing to stay positive. It is possible for people to find strength in simplicity and faith, but they must first acknowledge that life can be good even without realizing all of our ambitions. Unfortunately, this advice does not prevent the final tragedy from happening, and it seems clear that most residents of the alley - like most people overall - are not open to such advice until after it is too late.
Midaq Alley Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Midaq Alley is a great
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