Midaq Alley

Midaq Alley Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Naguib Mahfouz has said that he subconsciously wrote the character of Hamida as a symbol for Egypt. Identify the parallels between her character arc and the trajectory of the country in which she lives.

    By representing her culture but simultaneously rebelling against it, Hamida serves as a good symbol of Egypt in this time period. Hamida is ambitious, and refuses to be bound by tradition or by her lowly class. Similarly, Egyptians were rebelling against the long-standing British rule, and the nationalist Wafd Party wanted to enforce a constitutional monarchy. Hamida gains power that is unusual for a woman, but then becomes drunk with it, ultimately causing others pain. Egypt's King Farouk I, who reigned during the time this book was written, was also known for his lavish lifestyle, and his desperate attempts to protect it. For instance, he compromised the strides made by the Wafd party by signing treaties with the British. His actions were self-serving and led to unrest. Both the human potential for both great ambition and the unfortunate tendency to compromise those ideals are present in Hamida and in the story of Egypt in the 20th century.

  2. 2

    Abbas seems to have his future laid out clearly when he goes to Tell el-Kebir. Later, after he returns, Radwan Hussainy encourages him to forget Hamida and stay on this path. Do you think Abbas would have found happiness if he had not seen Hamida in the carriage?

    Abbas is a simple man, too taken by his idealism to accomplish much in the world. At the beginning of the novel, his love for Hamida is strong enough to survive her repeated and unsubtle rebuffs. His idealism is so strong that he interprets her disinterest as proof of her affection. He has an ideal vision that the reality cannot puncture. The reason he reacts so violently to learning she has become a prostitute is that he cannot reconcile the Hamida he loved with this loveless, debased woman he meets again. Even if he had not seen her in the carriage, this divide - between his ideals and reality - would likely have remained something torturous for him. He never truly saw Hamida for who she truly was; he only saw the person he wanted her to be. Therefore, even if he never saw her again, he would likely have lived his life mired in disappointment.

  3. 3

    There are several narrative threads in the novel that do no have detailed resolutions (consider Ibrahim Farhat's campaign, Mrs. Saniya Afify's marriage, or Radwan Hussainy's return). How does this lack of resolution shape the overall narrative?

    It has been said by critics and readers alike that Midaq Alley is deeply influenced by Naguib Mahfouz's own childhood growing up in Cairo. It serves as a microcosm of many of the issues that interested Mahfouz during this time. The unfinished nature of the stories creates a few effects. The first is that it feeds the realism of the world; not every story has a satisfactory pay-off. As in life, some adventures fizzle out instead of ending with a bang. Secondly, this structure reinforces the ensemble nature of the book. It does not follow a fixed protagonist, but instead seems to focus on the alley itself. As a result, there are only a few stories that end with a traditional catharsis. Finally, this structure reinforces the novel's final theme: that time passes, and all washes away. The greatest tragedy will disappear in the same way that the most banal event will. From the perspective of time, all events are small. Many critics believe the novel's end is rushed, but because of the structure Mahfouz uses, the effect can also been seen as reinforcing the idea that this place will continue to exist even after the last page has ended.

  4. 4

    How does the popular saying "too good to be true" apply to the inhabitants of Midaq Alley?

    A number of the characters accept certain realities simply on force of their desires, without realizing that their actions come with a price. Dreams can be so strong that reality does not initially dissuade us from them, and we therefore only learn the truth too late. This can be seen as the effect of desperation and poverty, or as a natural human quality. For instance, Hamida actually believes that Ibrahim Faraj loves her, even after she learns he is a pimp. It takes a while for the truth to sink in, and her response is particularly violent because she ignored the truth for so long. Mrs. Saniya Afify's situation offers a less extreme example. She is excited to pay Dr. Booshy's low prices, but soon enough learns the reason that the teeth come so cheap. As is often the case in life, these characters are willing to ignore facts for temporary joy, but reality does not go away so easily.

  5. 5

    Why does Salim Alwan change so drastically after his near-death experience? Do you think he'll ever be the same again?

    Salim Alwan's journey in the novel is one of the most devastating illustrations of reality. He loses not only his health, but also his optimism, and thereby does his story strongly illustrate the theme of reality impinging on ambition. Initially, Salim Alwan prides himself on getting whatever he wants: he eats pigeon meat, decides to marry a young girl to satiate his lust, and deals on the black market. He considers himself superior to everyone else in the alley. However, the truth of his age eventually catches up to him, and he suffers a heart attack. After that, he is continually plagued by a fear of death. It seems clear that these anxieties will never go away, as they represent the flip-side to his pre-collapse pride. These anxieties are merely reflections of the same insecurities that forced him to constantly flaunt himself as superior. Because he had such an idealized vision of himself, he is equally despondent about his limitations once he realizes them. Alwan's heart attack crushes his confidence and as much as he tries, he cannot forget the one adversary he will never be able to exercise control over: death.

  6. 6

    Do you believe that Kirsha loves his family? Why or why not?

    More than anything, Kirsha is a character who likes to indulge his instincts. He has no self-control, and thinks only about his own joy. He seems most defined by an extreme arrogance and sense of entitlement. However, Mahfouz creates complicated characters in almost every instance, and one can certainly argue that Kirsha has a fondness for his family. Though it is qualified by his attraction to Abdu, he does allow Hussain to move back home despite their vicious argument when the boy left. Further, he remains married to his wife, somewhat recognizing the importance of the social construct. Whether or not Kirsha would remain with his family in a different society is difficult to answer, but he is certainly a man torn between the demands of his society and the demands of his own desires.

  7. 7

    At the end of the novel, who do you think finds happiness? Who ends up miserable? What do the happy and miserable characters have in common?

    The only characters who seem to find unqualified happiness at the end of the novel are Radwan Hussainy and Sheikh Darwish, the men closest to God. They remain optimistic throughout, largely because they seem to embody the advice Hussainy gives before he leaves on his hajj: they ignore the demands of their desires and ambitions, and try to live simple, happy lives. Uncle Kamil seems mostly happy as well, largely because he too lives a simple life with no great ambitions. On the other hand, most characters must balance disappointment because of the way their ambitions backfire. Hamida ends up injured and compromised. Hussain ends up unemployed, drunk, and cowardly. Abbas ends up dead. Salim Alwan is miserable and paranoid. Zaita and Dr. Booshy are in prison. Only those who eschew ambitions end up without serious disappointment, suggesting that our desires might be what brings us excitement, but that they also introduce the potential for great disaster into our lives.

  8. 8

    What is the role of sex in Midaq Alley?

    For most women in this society, sex is either a tool for power or an expectation of the marriage construct. Hamida offers the strongest instance of the first. She dreams of a happy life, but as a poor girl, her beauty is her only tool. She therefore has to exercise it to gain agency over men, and in fact only achieves her dreams by allowing her sexuality to be perverted into prostitution. Several other characters use sex only to pro-create. Mrs. Saniya Afify, however, is an interesting counterpoint to these women. Like Hamida, she dreams of being with a man for the pleasure of it. She is willing to enter into a potentially disadvantageous marriage for the sake of companionship. Overall, sexuality is both a strength and limitation for women in this world.

  9. 9

    What is the role of politics in Midaq Alley?

    Midaq Alley takes place in a time when Egypt was in transition, between two revolutions against British Colonial powers. Because the first rebellion had proved most ineffective, there is a deep sense of political pessimism that pervades the story. Ibrahim Farhat represents the new independent voice of Egyptian nationalism, adhering to the word of Saad Zaghlul, leader of the Wafd Party. However, he also represents the corruption and selfishness inherent in those ideals. His rally is only a large spectacle, and in fact introduces the insidious Ibrahim Faraj into the alley. It therefore feels almost like a mockery of the ideals espoused by the 1919 revolution. Kirsha's attitude - that politics are corrupt and so a smart man simply makes what profit he can from them - is in fact the most emblematic of the world of the novel. Politics are only the state of the world; they do not change it. Therefore, characters must navigate the political reality of war and elections, but are hardly defined by them. Instead, their lives are defined by more natural emotions like love and heartbreak.

  10. 10

    Early in the novel, Umm Hamida suggests that Hamida marry Sheikh Darwish, a suggestion Hamida laughs at. What does Umm Hamida mean when she replies, "Oh, what a pity, Hamida. What a shame and a waste." Does this comment have multiple meanings?

    Hamida criticizes the idea of Sheikh Darwish as a suitor because he spends all his money on donations to the mosque, leaving none for a woman of her financial desire. Umm Hamida's response can be interpreted several ways. Most literally, she is commenting on the young girl's inability to choose a husband. Umm Hamida knows well that an unmarried woman has little power in the world, and so might her foster daughter end up a spinster with no potential. However, the comment touches on Hamida's greater flaw: her unrealistic ambitions. Because Hamida has such large dreams but little opportunity to realize them, she is setting herself up for disaster. Certainly, this observation plays out through Hamida's ultimate end. Though a bright and beautiful girl, Hamida hopes for too much, and hence sets herself up to be corrupted in a world with a potential for the violence that ultimately occurs. In many ways, Hamida realizes her ambition only but "wasting" her life in a "shameful" way.