Midaq Alley Summary and Analysis

Chapters 18-22

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Summary

Chapter 18

After leaving Salim Alwan's office, Umm Hamida is torn over her daughter's future. On one hand, Hamida is lucky to have drawn the attentions of such a rich man, but on the other, the engagement to Abbas was declared official when they recited together over the Qur'an.

Hamida is completely shocked to learn to the news. She grows angry at Abbas, whom she now sees as a deterrent towards a wealthy future. The woman are conflicted, so Umm Hamida visits Radwan Hussainy for advice, leaving Hamida to ponder her quandary. She does have feelings for Abbas, but doubts she could be truly happy with him now that she knows a rich husband is a reality.

Umm Hamida returns, and repeats Radwan Hussainy's advice: Hamida should not break the engagement unless Abbas were to return penniless. Hamida is incensed that Radwan Hussainy has any say over her marriage, and she rages about him that "God wouldn't have taken all his sons" if he were indeed so wise (146). Hamida insists that there is no official marriage agreement, and so she may do as she pleases. After another argument, Umm Hamida sets off to confirm the new engagement with Salim Alwan. However, when she arrives at his office, she learns that he had suffered a massive heart attack during the previous night, and that he may not live for much longer.

Chapter 19

The next morning, a pavilion is being erected in a vacant lot across from Midaq Alley. Uncle Kamil discovers it is intended to host a campaign party for Ibrahim Farhat, a merchant from Nahasin Street who is seeking political office.

Later, the party is beginning. Many chanting youths fill the streets, surrounding Farhat as he greets the constituents of Midaq Alley. He lands at Kirsha's café, hoping to gain the man's endorsement. Kirsha had recently withheld his support of Ibrahim Farhat, believing the candidate was paying more attention and bribes to rival cafés than to his own. Farhat believes that café owners have the power to sway their patrons.

The narrator gives a brief history of Kirsha's political activism. He had been politically active during the 1919 Rebellion, and was rumored to have accepted bribes for his support in the elections of 1924-1925. In the subsequent elections, however, Kirsha was ignored because of the rumors, and he decided to leave politics behind, even though he maintained his penchant for corruption. He continues to hold sway in local politics.

Farhat promises Kirsha and his patrons that he is not controlled by any political party, and that his goal is to inspire "miracle after miracle" for the people of Midaq Alley (153). As Farhat makes these promises, a young boy enters with an advertisement for adult aphrodisiacs, and the crowd breaks into laughter.

As news spreads of the candidate's speech, the pavilion fills. Even before the candidate begins, the gathering turns into a celebration with music and dancing. Hamida watches the merrymaking with delight. At one point, she notices a man staring at her from across the crowd. He deliberately moves to block her view of the celebration, and she deduces from his dress that he is wealthy. She is enlivened but ashamed because of the attention, and she eventually returns home.

Later, from her window, she sees the man drinking at Kirsha's café, and looking up at her. The experience is unforgettable.

Chapter 20

Hamida's wealthy mystery man continues to frequent Midaq Alley, where he visits the café to observe her. She has recently felt quite despondent, both because of Salim Alwan's collapse and because of her ongoing scorn for Abbas. The mystery man (whom we later learn is named Ibrahim Faraj) both attracts and enrages her through his persistence.

For many days, she abstains from her daily walk, for fear of encountering him. Finally, she goes out one day, secretly hoping he will follow her. When he does not stir from his place at the café, she is angry. That night, she wonders whether he is playing with her.

The next day, he is not at the café. When she takes her walk, she finds him waiting on Darasa Street. He admits his infatuation with her, and confesses he could not follow her for fear of drawing attention. In response, she rages at him. He makes clear that he will wait for her each day at Darasa Street until she is ready. She knows she has won.

Chapter 21

Mrs. Saniya Afify visits Dr. Booshy, to arrange for new teeth with which to impress her groom. Dr. Booshy despises her, considering her a miser, but is not one to turn away business. Though his rates for gold plates are notoriously reasonable - so much so that patrons have to deliberately ignore the mystery of where he gets them - she haggles with him for a lower price.

The narrator tells us that Mrs. Afify has been spending quite liberally in preparation for her marriage, buying new clothes, renovating her apartment, dyeing her hair, and even donating to the mosque.

Chapter 22

Salim Alwan finally returns from his hospital stay, not completely recovered but walking nevertheless. He is depressed over his condition, and blames everyone around him for it, believing they are consumed with jealousy for him. He is especially angry with his wife, whom he believes secretly wished this illness on him so that his sexual desires would temper.

When he returns to work that morning, he demands to first see the accounts, intent on finding evidence that his staff is cheating him. He establishes new rules - employees may not smoke inside, and he is be served his water hot. His manager, Kamil Effendi, is a heavy smoker, and worries that the company is about to become less pleasant.

Salim Alwan feels like a different person after his near-death experience, and is confused as to why he has been punished. When Umm Hamida visits him, he simply tells her that "God wanted otherwise," and she understands that he can no longer pursue Hamida (179). Radwan Hussainy also visits, encouraging Salim Alwan to keep his faith, and insisting that good will eventually come from this trial. Salim Alwan, however, remains in ill temper.

Analysis

In these chapters, Mahfouz continues to explore the potential of his omniscient, ensemble storytelling. As the novel progresses, he keeps his reader abreast of events in the alley, even though each chapter mostly focuses on a different character. He moves away from certain characters for a few chapters, and then returns back to them, catching us up on their lives in the meanwhile. And because the alley is so small, most characters have opinions on or interactions with the others, so that the reader is always aware that other characters are living their lives. Mahfouz is less telling a linear story than he is capturing vignettes of life as they unfold. In this way, each progressive chapter feels like a lens focusing on a different part of the world, rather than a new plot point. The implicit idea is that our lives are not composed of a single narrative, but rather of various stops and starts.

Religion and marriage play a large role in this section. We see a supposedly infallible character, Salim Alwan, struck down as the result of a massive heart attack. The timing of Alwan's illness is interesting, considering his recent lechery towards Hamida. Both parties are guilty of deception in this relationship. Salim Alwan is certainly aware on some level that his desire for Hamida is purely sexual; he admits it to himself in earlier chapters. Nevertheless, he finally finds a way to rationalize it by veiling the lechery under the pretense of marriage. Meanwhile, the women are both aware that the union would be unclean. Not only was the engagement to Abbas sanctified over the Qur'an, but Hamida is also aware that she is counteracting her nascent feelings for her fiancé. While Mahfouz never explicitly states that this illicit pursuit is the cause of the heart attack, the proximity of the proposal to the affliction does solidify the presence of faith amongst these people. Salim Alwan's heart attack is arguably the result of his anxiety and guilt, suggesting that religious faith can have the power both to deceive and to punish. He tells Umm Hamida that they wanted the engagement, but that "God wanted otherwise." However, the truth is that God's role is not even necessary - the human belief can be enough to engender a type of fate.

Both Mrs. Saniya Afify and Hamida confront the reality of marriage as a woman in this section. While Mrs. Afify is a middle-aged widow with resources, Hamida is a poor beauty. Hamida has several suitors over the course of the novel, while Mrs. Afify has to spend her savings to prepare herself for marriage. Regardless of either character's desire to throw off the traditional gender roles of women in Egyptian society, they are trapped within these expectations. Hamida's only asset is her beauty, while Mrs. Afify's only asset is her life's savings. Women in this time (and in many places, even today) are judged by their youth and beauty, and anyone pursuing marriage must contend with this truth. When Hamida discovers the mystery man, she knows such a relationship could ruin her reputation, but his sense of wealth, and his acknowledgement of her beauty, attract her as a means to a possible future.

This is the first time that Mahfouz directly describes the political landscape around Midaq Alley in the 1940's. Again, he uses a character to do so; Ibrahim Farhat serves as a microcosmic representation of the Egyptian politics at this time. Like Kirsha, Naguib Mahfouz was deeply influenced by the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, which led to the country's independence from the British. The independence was provisional, however, and the country was operating on a new constitution (drafted in 1923) while Britain continued to economically influence the country. The Wafd Party was responsible for starting the Revolution, but the party's relationship with the Egyptian Monarchy became strained after the war, which disenchanted many of its followers. Ibrahim Farhat describes himself as an "independent candidate," claiming he will serve his constituency "in accord with the original principles of Saad." This is a reference to Saad Zaghloul, a 1920s Wafd Party leader whose original goal was to remove the British from power, and whom Naguib Mahfouz (and Kirsha) were great supporters. The idealism of the 1919 revolution remains a powerful tool for political leaders.

However, the only real asset Farhat has is the spectacle of celebration, and promises that the narrator tells us he secretly does not believe he will keep. In a time of such corruption, people like Kirsha have either given in to the corruption and/or turned away from politics altogether. Their only reality is the neighborhood they live in; the larger realm of politics is beyond change, and cannot be trusted. Kirsha is smart because he plays both sides - he uses the idealism to make money for himself, but badmouths politicians as corrupt and useless to maintain his independence.

Finally, the theatricality of Midaq Alley is on full display in this section, with many performance-like scenes. Ibrahim Farhat's political rally becomes a stage for the people of Midaq Alley to perform on, through dances and music. Additionally, Hamida and the new mystery man share a dramatic courtship of glances before they ever say a word to each other. Their early relationship is even staged in a particular way, with Hamida watching the man from her window, while he smokes his pipe in the window of Kirsha's café. Mahfouz sets it up so that their eventual conversation has a sense of scripted inevitability.