Midaq Alley is introduced as a small side street of Cairo, leading to Sanadiqiya Street. It consists of two shops, a café, a bakery, an office, and two three-story houses. The novel takes place during World War II.
The novel opens shortly after sunset. Only the sweet shop (run by Uncle Kamil) and the barber shop (run by Abbas) remain open; everything else closes earlier. The large office next to the barbershop shuts down every night before sunset, and its owner, Salim Alwan, leaves in his private carriage. Once night falls, the only activity in the Alley happens in Kirsha's café.
The café is mostly dingy, though some of its elements "suggest a past glory" (3). One night, a well-dressed man in his fifties sits quietly on a couch, lost in his own world. (This is Sheikh Darwish, though he is not introduced until later.) A senile old poet enters, led by a young boy and carrying a two stringed-fiddle and a book. The young café waiter, Sanker, ignores the old poet until Dr. Booshy enters and demands the youth serve the older fellow. The narrator tells us a bit about Dr. Booshy: though he practices as a dentist, offering cheap services, he is not actually licensed to practice any sort of medicine.
Meanwhile, several other locals enter the café. After he has finished his coffee, the old poet starts to recite about the Prophet, while playing his fiddle. Kirsha demands he quiet down, claiming that the patrons of the café prefer a radio to a poet. He indicates that a new radio is currently being installed. When the old poet disagrees, Kirsha insists that everything has changed. Sheikh Darwish chimes in to agree with Kirsha that the world has changed. The old poet is dismayed to realize that his trade is no longer valued.
Radwan Hussainy, a local renowned for his piety, responds to Kirsha's insults by offering to find a job for the old poet's son. Radwan Hussainy has often tried to dissuade Kirsha from chastising the old poet, to no avail. The narrator tells a bit about Radwan Hussainy: he owns one of the houses in the alley, and his generosity and piety are particularly admirable considering that his life has been marred by the tragedy of failing to earn the university degree he worked for and then losing all of his many children to death.
Kamil and Abbas enter the café, after having closing their shops for the night. Abbas tells everyone how Kamil is worried about dying without having saved enough money for a proper burial. To mock his friend, Abbas claims to have purchased a shroud ("veils of the afterlife") for the older man's corpse. The gullible Kamil believes Abbas, but requests to see the shroud. To continue the joke, Abbas refuses.
Meanwhile, Hussain Kirsha, Kirsha's son, passes by the café, but decides not to enter. The narrator does not say much about him, aside from the fact that he works for the British army stationed in Cairo. By midnight, only Kirsha, Sanker, and Sheikh Darwish remain in the face. Darwish is the last to leave. Though his behavior suggests he is a space cadet, the narrator suggests he is merely just lost in the "World of God" (14). He was once a teacher of English with a family, but a combination of bad lucky, obstinence, and sanctimony led him towards a lonely life wandering the streets.
In the second house of Midaq Alley, Mrs. Saniya Afifiy rarely visits her tenants. However, she one day visits Umm Hamida on the second floor. Mrs. Afify knows that Umm Hamida, an elderly lady, works as a marriage broker, and has recently arranged a marriage for another elderly widow. Mrs. Afifiy hopes Umm Hamida can do the same for her. Though Mrs. Afify is generally known for her stinginess, she has recently felt the pangs of loneliness, and is now willing to compromise her lifestyle in order to have a husband.
After nervously avoiding the issue, Umm Hamida realizes the landlady's purpose, and succeeds in broaching the topic. She shows her talent for tact and manipulation in their negotiations. Mrs. Afify surprises herself and Umm Hamida when she asks for a man younger than herself, perhaps around 30. Umm Hamida agrees to arrange the match, but demands that Mrs. Afify waive rent for the rest of Umm Hamida's life. Mrs. Afifiy agrees, but to herself bemoans her tenant's greed.
After Mrs. Afify departs, Hamida (Umm Hamida's foster daughter) enters the room. Her mother worries that Hamida will never marry due to her temper, even though the girl is remarkably beautiful. Umm Hamida first adopted Hamida when the girl's mother, who was Umm Hamida's business partner and roommate, died. She was nursed by Mrs. Kirsha, alongside Mrs. Kirsha's own son Hussain, and so they are considered foster-siblings.
Umm Hamida tells Hamida about Mrs. Afify's visit, and then bemoans the young girl's impending spinsterhood. Hamida believes her mother is a terrible matchmaker, and that there is no one in Midaq Alley "worth considering" for herself except for Hussain, who was unfortunately raised as her foster brother (26). Umm Hamida is insulted by her daughter's comments.
Hamida looks out the window and mocks to herself the shabby alley and its many men whom she sees staring at her. These include Abbas and Salim Alwan. Hamida is jealous of the Jewish and factory girls, who work for money they can spend on clothing. Her mother suggests Sheikh Darwish as a potential mate, but the money-minded Hamida refuses to consider a man who gave his fortune away for Islam.
The next morning, Uncle Kamil and Abbas have breakfast together, as they always do. Kamil asks Abbas for the shroud, noting that the price of cloth is rising and he could make money off of it. Abbas continues the joke, and refuses.
Later, Hussain Kirsha comes to Abbas's barber shop for a haircut. The narrator tells us a bit about their friendship and backstory: they were raised together but grew somewhat apart when Hussain got a job in a different area of Cairo, and Abbas moved in with Uncle Kamil. They are of extremely different temperaments; Abbas is calm and avoids conflict, whereas Hussain is lively and temperamental. Further, Abbas is happy with his life in the alley, while Hussain despises the community.
As he cuts Hussain's hair, Abbas grows jealous to hear his old friend prattle about his wonderful life making money with the British army. Hussain believes he need not save money because "Hitler will fight for twenty years!" (34). Hussain tells him how he plans to take a young woman to see the monkeys at the zoo later that day. Their talk transitions to women, and it becomes clear how deeply infatuated Abbas is with Hamida. Hussain encourages his lovelorn friend to pursue a job with the British Army, so that he too can afford a good life. Though Abbas loves the Alley, he is affected when Hussain points out that the ambitious Hamida seeks a more ambitious man.
After Hussain leaves, Abba thinks to himself of how the alley rewards some like Salim Alwan, but brings him no wealth. Mostly with thoughts of Hamida in his head, he rushes after Hussain to talk more about working with the army.
Later that afternoon, Hamida leaves for her daily walk in the squares around the Alley. As she walks confidently through the Alley despite her faded clothes and broken shoes, she notices Abbas and Salim Alwan watching her. All the women in Midaq Alley hate Hamida, believing that she lacks the "virtues of femininity," and that she hates children (40).
As she walks, Hamida thinks about a poor girl from Sanadiqiya Street who fell in love with a rich contractor and was whisked away to a life of wealth. She daydreams about having such luck, until she meets up with the Jewish girls who are walking home after their factory shifts. They walk together and gossip as usual, until Hamida realizes that Abbas is following her. Though she does think him handsome and kind, Hamida wants a richer husband than Abbas.
After the Jewish girls have walked away, Abbas approaches Hamida. She shouts at him for being forward; a man and woman walking together would be viewed as improper in this society. Abbas is shocked, and insists that he has only the most "honorable intentions" towards her (43). When he tries to confess his feelings, Hamida grows disgusted with him. Abbas senses her hostility and retreats, devastated.
On his way home, Abbas runs into Sheikh Darwish, who is emerging from the mosque. Darwish warns Abbas against going out without a hat, because his brains could dissolve into steam.
In these first five chapters, Naguib Mafouz introduces us to both the story's geography and its characters. Mafouz's characterizations are generally quite dramatic; he tells his reader everything about the characters on their first introductions, paying special attention to their life's aspirations and their relationships to each other. By this point, the reader can already sense how the novel will focus on the interweaving stories of the Alley residents.
There is a theatrical quality to Mafouz's writing, in that it presents its characters like players on a stage. The effect of this is to suggest that this small road in Cairo is in fact a microcosm of the world. Mafouz uses his stories to introduce several cultural and historical elements of 1940s Cairo. World War II is happening while the story takes place, and we are introduced to that through the character of Hussain Kirsha, who is making a good living working for the British Army. This perspective on the war is quite rare. It explores how poor people are attracted to war because of the financial incentive. Hussain is pro-Hitler not because he approves of the Nazi's ideology, but rather because Hitler's success means the war will persist and that more opportunities will arise. He wants the war to continue for his own sake.
Egypt was a de facto British Colony until its independence in 1922, but the British remained in Egypt after that, and continued to have an influence over policy, government, and culture. In fact, the British continued to train the Egyptian Army until 1952, when King Farouk was overthrown by the Muslim Brotherhood. Mahfouz sets the novel in this time period, but rarely explores the British influence. Instead, his interest is in how a native community lives in a world of such conflict. Interestingly enough, the Alley is barely affected. Outside of Hussain's wealth and rent-controlled apartments, the Alley seems to function on a timeless rhythm, barely affected by the turmoil plaguing much of the Western world. In fact, most of the Alley locals barely interact with the larger Cairo community. Their entire lives are centered around a few small blocks. This approach suggests that Mahfouz wants to explore the lives of everyday people, whose concerns, passions, and tragedies are smaller than world conflict, and hence more universal. By looking into this tiny alley, he can ask questions about humanity in general.
In fact, what makes Mahfouz's novel so engaging, even today, is that it deals with universal and timeless themes. We see the older generation, like the poet, bemoan his growing insignificance with the rise of new technology. We see a young woman, Hamida, desperate to lift herself out of the traditional role that society expects her to occupy. We see young men trying to get rich, and older men worrying about the stability of their businesses. The dramatic and heightened nature of the characters serves as ironic counterpoint to their general insignificance in the world. Though these people will never make much of a dent in world politics, their stories are worthy of heightened expression and dramatic representations. The local color of the Alley is worth exploring for its own sake, and not for its greater impact. Mahfouz's purpose in writing the novel is quite clear - he wants to focus on the way individuals survive, how they pursue their dreams and then persist when those dreams collapse.
Lastly, Mahfouz begins to set up the novel's primary character arcs even in these opening chapters. Because he provides insight into each person's aspirations, we get a sense of what conflicts they will face, and what journey they will take. There is no clear protagonist to the novel - instead, each character will undertake his or her own journey. The story's structure, then, is not about an identificable goal, but instead about the way we each attempt to find happiness in our own lives. Again, his purpose in relating the lives of a particular community is underscored by this ensemble approach.