All of the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
FIRST ANCHOR BOOKS EDITION, JANUARY 1992
Copyright © 1966, 1975 by Naguib Mahfouz and Trevor Le Gassick
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. This English translation of Midaq Alley was first published by The American University in Cairo Press in 1966. First published in Arabic as Zuqāq al-Midaq. Protected under the Berne Convention.
The Anchor Books edition is published by arrangement with The American University in Cairo Press.
Anchor Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Maḥfūẓ, Najīb, 1911–
[Zuqāq al-Midaqq. English]
Midaq Alley / Naguib Mahfouz;
translated by Trevor Le Gassick.
Translation of: Zuqāq al-Midaqq.
I. Le Gassick, Trevor. II. Title.
PJ7846.A46Z4813 1992 91-27459
eBook ISBN 9781101974667
About the Author
Books by Naguib Mahfouz
The novel and short story, not truly traditional forms of Arabic literary expression, have developed great popularity over the past century in most countries of the Middle East. Cairo, the cosmopolitan capital of the most populous country of the area, has throughout the period been its cultural and literary center. There, in 1911 in the Gamaliya section of the old city, Naguib Mahfouz was born. Despite his full-time career in responsible positions in various departments of the Egyptian civil service, he was to develop a dedication to literature that would later give him international prominence as his country’s leading author. He has received honorary degrees from France, the Soviet Union, and Denmark and his works have been translated into many languages. In 1970 he received Egypt’s prestigious National Prize for Letters and in 1972 he was awarded the Collar of the Republic, his nation’s highest honor.
Mahfouz’s parents were of the middle-class Muslim merchant class of Cairo and in his sixth year they moved away from the crowded and conservative ancient quarter where he was born to the modern European-style inner suburb of Abbasiya. Naguib grew up and went to school there and later attended Cairo University, where he obtained his bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1934. After graduation he joined the university’s administration for a short period and then embarked on his long career with the Ministry of Waqf Pious Foundations and later other administrative branches of the Egyptian government.
He began writing even before completing his university education, publishing occasional short stories in literary journals. Though merely awkward little sketches of contemporary life and not popular today, they give the impression of a sober young man particularly sensitive to areas of conflict and tragedy in the lives of others; they are highly reminiscent of the works of Mustafa al-Manfaluti, to whose influence Mahfouz readily gives acknowledgment. It is clear that even then, unlike so many of his contemporaries who still despised prose fiction as a literary form, Mahfouz saw his stories as a means to bring enlightenment and reform to his society. The same sense of high morality and interest in the thoughts and motivations of others apparent in these early stories have marked all his later works as well, and contributed greatly to the broad range of respect he enjoys.
Also in the thirties he published a translation from English of a work dealing with life in ancient Egypt. This subject had then, after the sensational archaeological discoveries at Luxor and particularly the uncovering of the tomb of Tutankhamen, come to fascinate many of his countrymen. Following publication of a volume of further short stories set in modern Egypt, his attention again reverted to ancient times. In the middle and late thirties he wrote three novels depicting aspects of life in ancient Egypt that had obvious significance for his countrymen still living under forms of British control and a somewhat tyrannical King Farouk. Two of the novels deal with the struggle of the people of Egypt against despotic monarchs; the third shows how the Egyptians cast off the rule of the Hyksos invaders.
Mahfouz has said that his intention at that time was to write a lengthy series of historical novels set in ancient Egypt, but by the early forties his attention had in fact come to focus firmly once more on life in his contemporary society. A series of four novels of the period demonstrate the instability of family life in Cairo and the corruption pervasive in the governmental and party-political structure of the country. They stress in particular how dependent morality is on a secure material base and on simple good fortune. In these stories we see the Cairo of the Second World War, living under the pressures of the presence of a Britain at war and in the expectation of a Nazi invasion. The social consequences of the German air raids are a common theme of Egyptian literature of the time and in Mahfouz’s novels too we see how barriers of class, age, and sex dissolve as people are forced to crowd together in the air-raid shelters. In his novels Khān al-Khalīlī and Zuqāq al-Midaq (Midaq Alley), both named after streets in the Azhar quarter of the ancient city, the author turned his attention away from the comparative sophistication of his middle-class and suburban characters to those of an area similar to that of his own birth. How he is charmed and intrigued by the richly colorful life of these people is apparent in all his major work for the next decade. Whatever his central themes, the novels crowd with minor characters depicted with keen perception and great humor.
During the late forties he busied himself with construction of his 1,500-page Cairo Trilogy, each part named after a street near the great and revered mosque of Hussain in the same quarter of Cairo. Covering the fortunes of a large Muslim merchant family, perhaps like his own, over the first half of this century, it provides fascinating insight into the panorama of Egyptian life of the period. The cast of characters is rich and their interpersonal and societal relationships are examined in precise detail and authenticity. Time and change is a recurring theme of Mahfouz’s work and in The Cairo Trilogy he has ample room to develop it to the full. He shows how traditional Muslim views of, for example, the marriage relationship developed in the space of only fifty years from one of absolute subservience of the wife to one of near equality. The social and political conflicts of the turbulent period are seen to influence every aspect of Egyptian life, as contro
The Cairo Trilogy went through the usual pattern of Mahfouz’s works—first serialization and later publication in book form. It achieved growing popularity through the fifties and its success drew new attention to his earlier works, many of which originally had appeared almost unnoticed; they were consequently republished several times. But for seven years following the 1952 Free Officers’ Revolution under Colonel Nasser, Naguib Mahfouz wrote nothing more. His silence was broken only in 1959 with publication of his Awlād Hāritnā (Children of Our Quarter), an allegorical novel offering an essentially pessimistic view of man’s struggle for existence. His treatment of the subject proved unpopular with Egypt’s religious establishment and he felt best advised to refrain from publishing it in book form within Egypt, although it has since become available from a Lebanese publisher. Clearly discouraged by the work’s mixed reception, Mahfouz published no further novels for several years and his 1962 al-Lịṣs wa al-Kilāb (The Thief and the Dogs) deals in a circumspect way with a less complex and controversial issue. And now his style had changed from realist to impressionist and he used the “stream of consciousness” technique to pursue the thoughts and motivations of his central character, a convicted burglar seeking vengeance on his release from jail against the individuals and society that he thinks have corrupted and destroyed him. It is a powerful and fast-moving work, a drama in which the killing of the hero is inevitable but tragic.
Again, then, the view is pessimistic and the later novels of the sixties pursue similar themes. In al-Ṭarīq (The Road) the central figure (modern Egypt?), the son of a prostitute, is involved in a fruitless and tragic search for his father and his honor. In al-Summān wa al-Khaīf (Autumn Quail), Mahfouz pursues a politically sensitive theme; a bright young star of the Wafdist old regime loses his position, self-respect, and fiancēe in the early purges of Nasser’s revolution. His utter demoralization and the waste of his talents, for all his obvious faults, is shown as a national as well as personal tragedy. The novel expresses obvious regret at the revolutionary government’s failure to rehabilitate earlier intellectuals and others of such importance to Egypt.
His other novels of the middle sixties were equally courageous in their frank portrayal of the distress of many intellectuals living within the tight confines of Nasser’s Egypt. In al-Shaḥḥādh (The Beggar) the reader witnesses the trauma of a successful lawyer coming close to insanity as he grows to realize the extent to which the revolution is failing to achieve the high hopes for a new morality of those who, like himself, had worked under the Egyptian monarchy for political and social reform. Mahfouz’s next novel, Thartharah fawqa al-Nīl (Small Talk on the Nile) is full of outright ridicule of life under Nasser’s regime. The total absurdity of the bureaucratic structure is revealed in the novel’s opening scene, when the central character is asked by his department head the whereabouts of a requested report. Pointing to the finished report on his superior’s desk, the civil servant is amazed to discover that his pen must have dried out while he was writing, after only the first few lines! Yet he fails to see any justification for his superior’s anger; after all, the indentations on the paper remained, proof that he had written it as requested! In a series of brilliant scenes set on a houseboat on the Nile, the novel’s characters, all important members of Cairo’s intelligentsia, drown their depression in drugs and express the utmost disgust and derision for the values and structures of their society. In this novel and in Miramar, which closely followed it, Mahfouz argued that it was the cowardice and irresponsibility of the intellectuals themselves that had led their society to its sorry state.
By the late fifties Naguib Mahfouz was achieving recognition as his country’s most gifted novelist and publication of his recent works have been covered by all the country’s information media and soon adapted for television, theater, and film presentation. As a consequence his reputation is unrivaled throughout the Arabic-speaking world. His work has been a careful and deliberate reflection of the moods and frequently the malaise of his country. And so deep was the national depression after the Arabs’ disastrous defeat in the 1967 war with Israel and the subsequent invasion of Sinai, loss of the Suez Canal, and the destruction and evacuation of the major towns along its banks, that Mahfouz, like the other major fiction writers of Arabic, has been in no mood for sustained literary production. In recent years his output has been largely restricted to allegorical and philosophical short stories and playlets. His latest novel, al-Ḥubb tahta al-Matar (Love in the Rain), published in 1973, reflects the new sense of freedom then briefly being enjoyed by Egyptian writers and since heavily curtailed. Its subject matter was particularly sensitive at the time; it shows and by implication criticizes the carefree and dissolute life continuing in Cairo while troops suffer and wait on the front lines for a renewal of conflict with Israel.
Midaq Alley, then, belongs to the earlier period of Mahfouz’s work. Although written and set in the early forties, it provides glimpses of unusual intimacy into Egypt in a period of fast transition that is still today in progress. The past thirty years have seen enormous changes in every area of Egyptian life yet much there has remained the same. Many of the tourists in Cairo’s great hotels who buy the recently republished pocket edition of E.W. Lane’s famous Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians must fail to notice, as they view the colorful scene around them, that the book was first published in 1836!
Both the locale and the events of this novel should certainly not be viewed within a narrow framework of time. In Midaq Alley we see how characters are enticed away from the roles natural to their birth and upbringing by the hope of material gains chiefly through work with the British Army; nowadays it is the factories of semi-industrial Africa and the Arab world that draw people away from their traditional roles in village and town. The universal problems of behavior and morality the novel examines remain, of course, the same; Kirsha’s drug addiction and homosexuality and Hamida’s ambitions, Alwan’s middle-aged fantasies and Hussain’s dissatisfaction, are restricted neither to time nor place. And the views expressed in eternal optimism by Radwan Hussainy, and the attitudes of his neighbors toward him, remind one of the place of men of religion in all societies today.
In this, as in many of Mahfouz’s works, we perceive time, here personified in the ageless Alley, to be the novel’s central focus. The aspirations and tragedies of its inhabitants are witnessed with total indifference by the Alley within which the circle of life and death is forever run again. In this it is a view in close focus of the human drama at large, selected by a literary craftsman of impressive skills. And in Midaq Alley, as in life itself, there is much gaiety, color, and excitement to enliven the passing scene.
Note on This Translation
Arabic is, of course, a language far different in syntax and sounds from English and gives expression to a highly distinctive people and a complex culture. The translator has, then, an almost limitless range of choices and dilemmas over vocabulary and arrangement when attempting to convey the spirit of a work of fiction. The present translation offers an approximation of how Mahfouz might have expressed himself had English been his native tongue.
Very little deliberate editing was, however, in fact found necessary; some phrases and short passages that tended to be repetitious have been dropped or condensed and the names of characters and places have been simplified, while left in recognizable form. The changes made have been kept as insignificant as possible consistent with a text that should move easily and naturally for an English-speaking readership. A few words relating to aspects of Egyptian national and Muslim cultural life for which we have no parallel have been given brief descriptive definitions within the text whe
TREVOR LE GASSICK
Many things combine to show that Midaq Alley is one of the gems of times gone by and that it once shone forth like a flashing star in the history of Cairo. Which Cairo do I mean? That of the Fatimids, the Mamlukes, or the Sultans? Only God and the archaeologists know the answer to that, but in any case, the alley is certainly an ancient relic and a precious one. How could it be otherwise with its stone-paved surface leading directly to the historic Sanadiqiya Street. And then there is its café known as Kirsha’s. Its walls decorated with multicolored arabesques, now crumbling, give off strong odors from the medicines of olden times, smells which have now become the spices and folk cures of today and tomorrow…
Although Midaq Alley lives in almost complete isolation from all surrounding activity, it clamors with a distinctive and personal life of its own. Fundamentally and basically, its roots connect with life as a whole and yet, at the same time, it retains a number of the secrets of a world now past.
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 Sanadiqiya Street. One of its sides consisted of a shop, a café, and a bakery, the other of another shop and an office. It ends abruptly, just as its ancient glory did, with two adjoining houses, each of three stories.
The noises of daytime life had quieted now and those of the evening began to be heard, a whisper here and a whisper there: “Good evening, everyone.” “Come on in; it’s time for the evening get-together.” “Wake up, Uncle Kamil, and close your shop!” “Change the water in the hookah, Sanker!” “Put out the oven, Jaada!” “This hashish hurts my chest.” “If we’ve been suffering terrors of blackouts and air raids for five years it’s only due to our own wickedness!”