I came to this novel, Midaq Alley, (1947) from the film, El Callejon del los Milagros, which was made from it, the former, Egyptian, the latter, Mexican. I’d watched the film knowing it was taken from a Naguib Mahfouz story and was curious how Cairo got converted to Mexico City and Egyptian Muslims to Mexican Catholics. You can find my review of the movie, here. Naturally, having seen the movie and been impressed with it, my curiosity whispered again: what about the novel itself? Was it really true that a young, Muslim woman had been seduced into prostitution in 1945 Cairo — at least in the author’s imagination? Did a father of a grown son start chasing young men of a similar age? What was analogous to Mexicans going to El Norte to find work? Did Cairo have fortune tellers with cards?
I took up the challenge and was well rewarded. Of the several Mahfouz novels I’ve read (here, here and here) this is the fullest — of characters, psychological insight and plain old, wonderful, description.
The sun began to set and Midaq Alley was veiled in the brown hues of the glow. The darkness was all the greater because it was enclosed like a trap between three walls. It rose unevenly from Sanadiquiya Street. One of its sides consisted of a shop, a cafe, and a bakery, the other of another shop and an office. It ends abruptly, just as in ancient glory it did, with two adjoining houses, each of three stories.
Keep in mind, western-style fiction was a novelty in the Arab world in the 1950s and 60s. Mahfouz says of himself that he was a voracious reader of European fiction in his youth, including Balzac, Dickens and Tolstoy. After several historical novels, in the fashion of Sir Walter Scott, he really began to show his talent and observational skills with Midaq Alley.
The story takes place almost entirely in the small, impoverished street that gives the book its title. A cafe, a bakery, a few rooming houses. The nearest Mosque is blocks away. A war is raging in the world beyond, which gives employment and hope of employment to some. The characters cross each other’s paths many times a day, sometimes in good humor, sometimes in blistering rages. Two of the older families are falling apart, the husbands having grown tired of their wives and taken interest in what youth might restore in them. One middle aged widow has overcome her fears and asked a marriage arranger to find her a young man. The star of the story, as she is sometimes called, is a young and beautiful woman, Hamida, who finds that her ambition — and fate– out duels her good sense and modesty. She breaks her first engagement to a young barber from the Alley who has gone away to make some money while the war is going on.
[Her mother says:] “The matter isn’t easy to decide. Have you forgotten that you are engaged? And that I confirmed it by reading the Qur’an with Abbas?”
A vicious look came into the girl’s eyes and shattered her beauty. She shouted in full, angry scorn. “That barber!”
Her mother was amazed at the speed with which Hamida decided the matter. Her old feelings that her [foster] daughter was ambitious and cruel were renewed. She never really doubted what the girl’s choice would be, but she would have preferred at least a little thought. She had hoped the girl would hesitate and that she could then convince her.”
In a sense, this foretells everything. The second engagement is broken by a debilitating stroke to the older man, “A man who has so much money it can’t be counted,” according to her mother. And then comes number 3:
His arrogance infuriated and fascinated her. Yet his respectable appearance and his handsome masculinity attracted her. She saw in him qualities she had never before known in a man; strength, money, and a fighting disposition.
With winningly seductive language and knowledge of his prey, he convinces her of his love, and his power.
…God has sent me to you to restore your precious jewel of a self, your stolen rights…
After a walk to a square she has never been to, she becomes worried about the time. He nonchalantly hails a taxi.
“A taxi! The word rang strangely in her ears. In her whole life she had only ridden in a horse-drawn carriage and the magic of the word “taxi” took time to die away. But how could she possibly ride in a taxi with a strange man? She was overcome by a powerful desire for adventure. She was amazed at her capacity for reckless adventures…
Hamida becomes his “whore,” one “by instinct” as he thinks. She knows what she is doing:
“What then would be said about her? The thought made her toss and turn in distress. However,nothing in the world could have altered her decision. She had made her choice with all her strength and it was the one she really wanted. She was sliding down her chosen route and all that blocked her way to the pit were a few pebbles.”
The book, in a good solid translation that had me wondering only a few times about choices or meaning, reads quite easily. We slip into the alley as easily as into a back street of Dickens or a marital dispute of Balzac. Of course, it is Cairo, and Muslim. We soon adjust to the politeness phrases and language color that all cultures have but which here are particularly God and wish oriented.
By God and Hussain, without you the alley isn’t worth an onion skin!”
…How insignificant our thanks are in the face of these divine blessings.”
Uncle Kamil patted him on the shoulder , saying sympathetically, “Put your faith in God, Sheikh Darwish. O God, keep us from evil. For you to weep is an omen of some misfortune to come…O God, give us grace!
The development of Hamida’s first engagement is very sweetly told, a surreptitious single kiss on the stairway to her house:
She longed to taste one of those kisses about which she had heard. He carefully noted the passerby while he felt for her mouth in the darkness of the evening and then placed his lips on hers, trembling violently as he did so. His breath engulfed her and her eyes closed tightly in ecstasy.
It becomes very clear in reading what a courtship should consist of in this time and this place — that a young man following a young woman is a declaration of serious intent. That she is expected to walk away — with a few words of reproof if she is interested, with nothing at all if she is not. Taking a woman’s hand is a transgression almost unforgivable. Engagement vows are made by a reading of the first chapters of the Koran, not by the parties themselves but by their elder representatives
It’s a fascinating world, not the least of which is Zaita, the cripple-maker, to whom those drenched in despair come to be made cripple in some fashion to boost their earnings by begging. Not only that, he is a grave robber, stealing teeth and tooth plates from the dead to sell at discount to the local, self taught dentist.
Perhaps the thing that surprised me most, aside from the central thread of Hamida becoming a prostitute, was the dysfunctionality of two families, that of Kirsha the cafe owner, his wife and son above all. It isn’t so much a physical abuse as a torrent of verbal abuse, typically man to woman — though certainly not entirely one-sided– that reminds us not only that “all unhappy people are unhappy in their own way,” but that all people, regardless of religious belief, nationality, time in history…. will be unhappy, and take it out on others, what ever admonitions and homilies counsel them otherwise.
Mrs. Kirsha, panting for breath, wrapped herself in her cloak and, shouting in a voice loud enough to crumble the wall of the cafe, addressed her husband: “You hash addict! You nincompoop! You filthy lout! You sixty-year old! You father of five and grandfather of twenty! You bastard! You dumb oaf! I feel like spitting in your dirty black face!
Mr Kirsha, quivering with emotion, stared at her in a fury and yelled back, ‘”Hold your tongue woman and take away that toilet of a mouth of yours; you’re spraying us all with its filth!”
“Shut your mouth! You are the only toilet around here, you scarecrow, you disgrace, you rat bag!”
It was also interesting to read of sexual desire in a society we have come to think of as entirely hidden beneath a severe morality, layers of cloth and impassive faces.
She was poor and humble, but what about her bronze-colored face, the look in her eyes, and her lovely slender body? All these were qualities which far outweighed mere class differences. What was the point of being proud. He quite frankly desired that pretty face, that body of sensuality and those beautiful buttocks which were able to excite even a pious old man. She was, in fact, more precious than all the merchandise from India.
Of course a novel is expected to be richer than a film that comes from it. There is simply more time to add detail and counter working and amplifying themes. In this case, I enjoyed both book and movie and thought the interpretation into Mexico was honestly done. Finding work with the Allies in wartime Egypt was replaced by going across the border to Texas to find work. The main male protagonist was a barber in both cases; the central location was a cafe in Cairo and a bar in Mexico City; the owner was similarly interested in young men; a widowed landlady with bad teeth went in search of a young man in both cases — though in Cairo, arranged by the neighboring marriage broker, they seemingly didn’t meet until the wedding day; in Mexico, foretold by a card-reader, we and the widow know her suitor and they come to the marriage in a more typical western way.
A difference between the novel and the film that interested me was the emphasis Mahfouz puts on the Alley itself. It has a character, which he carefully lets us see, composed of all these people and families and comings and goings, but like the human body itself, always the same person despite a constant replacement of cells, so the Alley stays the same no matter what changes, deaths, counciling sessions, trips to Mecca occur throughout the years. The sense in the movie of the street itself, as its own character, is not as strong — something I think could have been done with some loving camera shots, pulling away from the daily and nightly goings on and letting us see the mural of the walls, the outlines of the houses against the sun and moon, people, as forms and shapes coming and going — the same, since the Conquest.
The religious differences in book and movie were noticible. The currents of belief and habit that pervade the book
…Satan is so clever! I was angry, rebellions and full of scorn.. Everything is fate and chance!
…The devil took a fancy to him, and led him astray.
do not appear in the movie. There is no important holy man like Radwan Hussainy, to whom everyone in the Alley goes for spiritual counselling. There is no attempt to make the figures Catholic in any sense; they are just folks in Mexico City. We know them to be Catholic but there are no religious ejaculations, calls on God’s mercy, invocations of God’s greatness. In fact, it might have been a distraction in the movie. In both cases it seems that the film-people represent real people, speaking and acting as they do in the cities of the time being represented. WW II is not going on during El Callejon. On the contraty, one of the movie offerings I enjoyed was the pretty accurate use of “palabrotas,” cursing and ribald ribbing that seemed true to my ear. Though there are plenty of insults in the novel, they come in a different form.
The central story of Hamida/Alma going into prostitution was very similiar — though, at this late date, with so much of fundamentalist Islam in the news and on our minds –stories of stoning for adultery, murders for homosexuality– it seems much stranger that a woman in 1945 in Cairo would go down this path. The war, the poverty, the influx of foreigners, the probable relaxation of moral code may have made it seem less strange in 1947, at the writing of the book. My knowledge of Egypt, or Iran for that matter, being very much from current events it’s possible prostitution is even today embedded in the cultures, regardless of the stern punishments we hear about.
What was different between the two portrayals, and which I wondered about, was that the movie converted the pimp’s house, into a full, high end brothel The scenes we saw were inside. A selectivity and some sort of security for the women — aside from the pimp– seemed implied. In the book on the other hand, the house was a “school,” where Hamida and others were taught “oriental dance” and “western dance,” how to do their make-up, and how to dress. Unclothed they were taught the English words of lovemaking and seduction. But then, from the few scenes presented, much of their work was done in the bars in Cairo where the British officers hung out…. More dangerous, less supervision by the pimp. I was curious why the movie didn’t follow this and chose to pump up the elegance of her surroundings. In the novel the clients were almost all foreigners, officers, perhaps true to the time, but also giving an escape to Egyptian pride. In the Mexican movie we just assume the clients are wealthy Mexicans. Foreigners do not enter the story.
Hamida, of the novel, is a much more willful and ambitious girl than is Alma of the movie who merely seems adrift, perhaps with a hunger for love that the pimp promises to satisfy, and then she finds herself trapped, with no other choices. Hamida is not trapped, except by her own desires for luxury, and adventure. She accepts her new name — Titi– as part of the adjustment she had to make.
From the very beginning Hamida chose her path of her own free well. Experience had shown her that her future life would be gaity and pleasure mixed with pain and bitter disappointment.
A particularly interesting detail jumped from the pages in the closing portion as the wayward son of the cafe owner, Kirsha, comes back, married and with his brother-in-law in tow, both having lost their jobs because the war is winding down. On two occassions he refers to his job loss as due to Hitler’s unexpected weakness:
Hussain answered indignantly, “They said the war would never end and that Hitler would fight for decades and then eventually attack.” And later, “How can it have ended so quickly?” asked Hussein. “Everybody hoped Hitler would be able to prolong it indefinitely. It’s our bad luck that’s brought it to an end.”
Midaq Alley is a richly told tale and one of Mahfouz’ earliest. Though separated by decades from the years of its writing it is not a bad time now, as Egypt explodes, to be reading more than just the headlines from this age-old culture, about which we know so little.