Saturday, February 20, 2010

Midaq Alley

This semester Andrew is taking a class called “Cairo in the Modern Literary Imaginary,” which is basically an awesome class, not that I really know since I’m not in the class but I have been reading all the books for the class and listening to a condensed lecture by Andrew when he comes home from class on Wednesday nights.

The first book we read was Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988 due to this book.

There isn’t really a protagonist or antagonist in the story, rather it depicts the life of the entire alley, showing both the vices and virtue of each character, though if I had to pick a character as the protagonist it would probably be Hamida since we follow her fall much more closely than that of the other characters. I found that I didn’t envy any character in the book—they all had such awesome trials. The wicked had trials, the pious had trials, the poor had trials, the wealthy had trials. In a way I suppose the book made me feel grateful for my own set of trials.

The lives of all the characters were very intimately intertwined; I didn’t really understand how that could be, but it turns out that was only because I was picturing the alley all wrong. I was picturing Midaq Alley like Road 9, which is huge—or at least regular-sized, with room to park on either side of the road permitting one lane of traffic to drive through. Midaq Alley, however, is so small and nondescript it would be quite easy to overlook.

Currently Midaq Alley is in the spice market of Khan al-Khalili. We wandered over from al-Khayimiyya, the tent-maker’s market, and found it on our first try since we knew exactly what we were looking for. We’d been in the area several times before and never bothered to look down this tiny, forgotten alley—nor did we think we had any reason to. Today, though, it seemed fascinating.

We turned into the spice market and Andrew said, “Alright, this should be it. Right here. Yup, here’s a cafe. I wonder if this is it.”

He asked some men sitting in a corner if Midaq Alley was near.

“Near?” one of the men answered, gesturing to us with a sweeping arm, “This is the very alley.”

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We glanced back at the cafe and saw a portrait of Naguib Mahfouz staring back at us. This, indeed, was the place.

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The cafe still serves tea and shisha—although probably no longer spiked with marijuana—we didn’t have anything but asked for them to show us the Midaq Alley sign they were rumoured to have. They told us that they lost it. Oh, well.

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The door to the cafe is glass and there are large windows both to the side and above the door, so it was obvious how Hamida and Mrs. Kirsha could follow the comings and goings of the cafe patrons, while the patrons, in turn, could spy on them. 

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One of these windows (or mashrabiyas—we’re not sure which) was probably Hamida’s. I’m guessing the one on the left since that would allow her to see into the cafe better.

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To give a little perspective of how small the alley really is, here is a shot of the alley from the street it connects to in the spice market:

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Midaq Alley is off al-Muizz il-Din Allah, which intersects with al-Muski, which happens to be the main drag of the Khan now, and where Hamida would walk with her Jewish friends in the book. It was interesting that Hamida was comforted by the fact that no one knew her, besides the Jewish girls who worked at the factory, on Muski street, and when she ventured as far as al-Azhar street she was a complete stranger in the area. Those areas aren’t a far walk from Midaq Alley and Andrew said they had a very interesting discussion in his class about how people in Cairo tend to live their whole lives on one street, never leaving the area, even for the day.

Interestingly enough, those who did leave the alley—specifically Abbas—seemed to come back bettered: more confident, successful, and educated than before. In contrast, those who stayed in the alley remained ignorant of the world around them—electricity, foreigners, cars, fashion, and sky scrapers all fascinated Hamida the first time she left the alley and she found them very alluring.

Of course, we in America suffer from the same ignorance, as they discussed in Andrew’s class. There are neighbourhoods around Salt Lake City or Provo, where our families have lived for years, that we have never been to and have no plans to ever go since they aren’t in our “class,” so to speak.

It was fun to take a little walk around Midaq Alley—there were some stairs at the end of the alley but we didn’t go up them and now I’m kind of wishing that we had, although it probably only lead to the entrances of the houses. It’s always embarrassing when you go off exploring only to find that yourself on someone’s doorstep.

Midaq Alley talks quite extensively, although merely dancing about the subjects in innuendo, about promiscuity and the drug culture of Cairo in the 1940s. Sometimes it seems that some Muslims try to blame these corruptions on the West, but in fact they’ve been around—everywhere—since the beginning of time. And they’re still alive and well today…it’s never very difficult to stumble upon lingerie displays in the street.

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While we were walking down al-Muizz, each of us carrying one of the girls, a man shouted out at us,

“Oh, nice! You have been busy like the Egyptian people are busy!”

If he was insinuating what we think he was…and he probably was…everyone in the world is busy like the Egyptian people since the global population keeps rising, but we didn’t point that out to him.

Anyway, that’s Midaq Alley for you. Small, compact, still there.


  1. Very interesting! I think I will put that book on my to-read list.

  2. Great photos and write-up. I think it's so interesting to compare the Cairo that Mahfouz creates with the Cairo of Yahya Haqqi--and if you wanted to bring more modern novels into the discussion you could add Alaa' al-Aswani and Khayri Shalabi. I'm convinced you can find anything you're willing to look for in Cairo.

  3. 'Amara Ya'qubian is in the lineup in the next few weeks, and I'm super excited for it.

    Robert Solé's Birds of Passage is a completely different (and equally as beautiful) Cairo.

    This class rocks. I just wish it had been offered during my first semester here rather than my last…

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  5. Thank you so much for sharing Cairo. I'm a huge fan of Egyptian Literature. It's one thing to read and imagine and a completely different one to "see"...
    Thanks again. Very well done!

  6. thank you very, very much! it was such a nice idea to write about Midaq Alley and to show your pictures. thank you!