Naguib Mahfouz's religious upbringing is reflected through the omnipresent thread of Islam laced throughout Midaq Alley. Some characters, like Radwan Hussainy and Sheikh Darwish, are explicit mouthpieces for Islam. Radwan Hussainy, arguably one of the most unsullied characters in the novel, offers sage advice to all the lost souls of the alley, while Darwish makes more obfuscated pronouncements. However, every character is forced to balance his or her ethical decisions against the code of Islam. Reciting over the Qur'an has special meaning for Umm Hamida, and though she is willing to ignore Hamida's engagement to Abbas, she must confront the religious significance. Finally, the code of Islam helps to understand several other aspects of society, most notably the place women hold in the alley.
Marriage in the world of Midaq Alley is mostly transactional, even though it is an expectation. For a woman, marriage is the main way to secure a future. This is why Hamida bounces between so many affections and engagements, with Abbas and then Salim Alwan. Her violent disappointment with Ibrahim Faraj is largely due to his refusal to marry her, even though he has provided her with a semblance of the life she wanted. Other characters - like Kirsha or Radwan Hussainy - have unhappy marriages to which they are nevertheless committed. Perhaps Mrs. Saniya Afify's situation best exhibits the complication of marriage. Though she knows it might mean the end of her life's work and fortune, she has no option for companionship outside of it (lest she be judged an improper woman), and so ultimately decides to find a husband. In all these ways, the novel critiques the social construct of marriage, not as something naturally bad, but as something detrimental because of the social imperative.
Most of the characters in Midaq Alley aspire for a life outside their grasp. These ambitions are a reflection of the opportunity provided by the war, while the failure to reach these ambitions are a reflection of the limitations placed upon the lower classes. Hamida and Hussain Kirsha both want wealth and status. Salim Alwan believes that his wealth should entitle him to greater recognition. Even Abbas is driven towards blind ambition, when he realizes that only money will make him a suitable match for his beloved. It is telling that the characters who seem happiest are those who eschew ambition in exchange for simple pleasures. Radwan Hussainy and Sheikh Darwish, in accepting their place, are mostly contented throughout the novel. Similarly, Abbas is quite happy before he decides to work with the Army. Of course, Mahfouz is not attacking upward mobility, but instead exploring how it can prove to be a tragic force by inspiring people towards something that is not usually possible to attain.
In Midaq Alley, jealousy fuels the burning, uncontrollable desires of many characters. Hamida is jealous of the factory girls, thinking that she deserves to be like them. Abbas dies because of his uncontrollable jealousy. Mrs. Kirsha goes crazy with jealousy, and creates a terrible scene at her husband's cafe. Many of these characters begin the novel close to a tipping point, with jealousy and/or resentment ultimately driving them over the edge. In some ways, this is a reflection of the economic difficulties of their particular time period. However, in most ways, it is simply a universal quality that speaks to Mahfouz's interest in humanity as a whole.
In a time when Egypt was re-asserting its identity as a country, traditional gender roles were certainly starting to shift, and women were starting to achieve a certain agency. Due to the war, women started working (like Hamida's factory girl friends do). Additionally, many of the women in Midaq Alley hold power over men. Husniya is strong and fierce, and reverses the common trope of domestic abuse - she beats her cowering husband. Hamida exercises power over all the men she attracts, but refuses to become servile and pregnant, thinking she deserves better. Mrs. Saniya Afify is a self-sufficient woman who only wants a husband for companionship. As Egypt was throwing off the shackles of British rule, so these characters are emerging from beneath gender roles that have stood for centuries. However, change comes slow, and much of the novel's tragedy comes from still-calcified gender expectations. Beauty remains a woman's primary asset (as Hamida's situation proves), and many characters are either openly or subtly contemptuous of women in power. Even the otherwise holy Radwan Hussainy seems to see his wife as an outlet for his resentments over life. This conflict over gender expectation is one of the novel's most fascinating.
Naguib Mahfouz has said in interviews that his political leanings creep into all of his work. As a supporter of the Wafd Party and a staunch Egyptian nationalist, his views certainly resonate in Midaq Alley. He has admitted that he subconsciously crafted Hamida as a symbol of Egypt itself. She is a woman who is frustrated with the constraints that her circumstances impose on her and so breaks free, only to find herself in a new, different situation of powerlessness. This story certainly resonates with that of Egypt, which had to rebel twice against Britain. Further, the novel explores various political attitudes. Most explicit is the character of Ibrahim Farhat, the politician who promises to bring conditions back to the old Wafd ideals of 1919. Like Kirsha, Mahfouz seems somewhat pessimistic about change in a corrupted political world. Instead, what drives most of these characters is economic concerns; they make decisions on how to serve themselves above all, and so does significant, communal change seem unlikely to occur.
Opportunities of Wartime
Midaq Alley is a microcosm of Egypt during World War II. While the war is wreaking havoc on most of the world, it offers new opportunities for the inhabitants of Midaq Alley. Salim Alwan profits from dealing goods on the unregulated black market. Hussain Kirsha and Abbas gain employment through the British Army. When she becomes a prostitute, Hamida's great value is contingent on the money of British soldiers. Kirsha has traded his former idealism for the potential of profit made through corrupt politics. Most characters are disassociated from war's destruction; instead, they are simply hoping for their piece of the pie. Mahfouz attacks in his novel not only the unsympathetic and exploitative British Army, but also the destructive attitudes that natives adopt in the face of war.
Midaq Alley Questions and Answers
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