Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, revolutionized the world of Arabic narrative. Neither the novel nor the short story were common forms of expression until Mahfouz’ works became popular in the 1950s and 1960s. His writing is unique, both in Arabic culture and in the wider storytelling world, in that it often has no definable protagonist, and reads as a series of short stories which come together to form the work as a whole. Midaq Alley, translated into English for a 1966 release date, is a phenomenal example of these writing styles; each character holds equal importance and the reader is introduced to them gradually, in a soap-operatic fashion, through a myriad of views into their individual lives, dialogue, and interactions. Midaq alley, a back lane tucked away off the bustling streets of Cairo, functions as its own microcosm of Egyptian society. Much in the same way that certain actors in a soap opera garner more screen-time than their counterparts, so Mahfouz chooses which characters he will write more frequently with profound intent. Due to their brief vignettes, “secondary” characters are created very purposefully through the use of tight diction and varied syntax. A prime example of this is the alley resident Zaita, whom Mahfouz reveals sporadically and impulsively.
Zaita is one of the most intriguing members of the alley, as it is incredibly difficult to discern his purpose in the alley at a first, or even second glance. It is only through attentive observation and analysis that his role is revealed. Naguib Mahfouz, in his novel Midaq Alley, writes the character of Zaita as a representation of “the Id”. The “Id” is a concept coined by Sigmund Freud (The Encyclopedia Britannica). The psychoanalytical theory behind the Id states that the human psyche can be divided into three distinctive parts, with the Id being the section responsible for people’s most primitive and instinctual actions, and is often repressed in favor of the ego and the superego (the two more “civilized” aspects of the human psyche). Naguib Mahfouz explores this theory through his character Zaita, and uses this expression of the primal and the intuitive to subtly criticize the general perception of what civilization is and should be, while simultaneously demonstrating the vitality of the Id as a human characteristic and as a component of society as a whole. In the majority of progressive civilization, there is an unspoken repression of the primal. Modern civilization is built upon the concept of retreating from instinctual, self-serving behaviors; Midaq Alley comments on the significance of civilization and the individuals which make up a society. Mahfouz crafts the character of Zaita as a masterful personification of this animalistic element of society.
Zaita makes his first appearance seven chapters into the novel, when Mahfouz writes; “On the ground, almost directly beneath the little window, something is piled, no different from the floor of the room in color, filthiness, or smell, but possessed of limbs, flesh, and blood, and which therefore, despite everything, deserves to be called a human being.” By employing sensory imagery, appealing to olfactory and visual senses, Mahfouz creates a sense of repugnance within the reader. He directly addresses his exigence with the final phrase: his diction in words such as “deserves” and “despite” displays the message that, although the Id is abhorrent in every sense, it is still a crucial aspect of humanity. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes the Id as “the psychic realm containing content related to the primitive instincts of the body, notably sex and aggression.” Mahfouz chooses to show very little of Zaita, his scant appearances mirroring the society of the alley’s reluctance to confront this part of themselves. In his few passages Zaita is nevertheless portrayed as reeking of concupiscence, selfishness, and unpredictability. For instance, in a conversation with Husniya, the owner of the house in which Zaita resides, he says: “How can you expect a bastard to guard against those sins [casual sexual intercourse] of his unknown father?” Here, Mahfouz’s message is clear: Zaita lives on impulse, seeking pleasure as his ancestors did before him, following unabashedly the course which nature has laid out for him. Husniya then threatens to break his neck, to which Zaita responds: “Perhaps that would be delightful too.” The Id is concerned with the beauty of violence, finding pleasure in the most abhorrent of acts. Following this exchange, a “fit of violent passion” grips Zaita, and he is said to remove his filthy garments in order to seduce Husniya. Mahfouz writes: “He felt he had what he wanted and that Husniya would do as he wished.” This impulsive behavior characterizes Zaita, displaying an animalistic side to humanity that few are willing to acknowledge. Although Husniya had been more than happy to play along with Zaita’s flirting until this point (“her pleasure and the way she listened delighted him”), when all subtleties are removed and his true intentions are revealed, she is repulsed, and throws a mug at Zaita, wounding him. Mahfouz wishes to demonstrate to the reader the allure of the Id, and the simultaneous rejection of its desires by human society.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Zaita’s character is his attitude towards his surroundings. Mahfouz writes: “He had scarcely anything to do with the alley in which he dwelt. He had no need for anyone, nor anyone for him.” This line in itself is fascinating as it demonstrates Zaita’s detachment: he exists in the alley physically, but dwells in his own reality; he does not contribute to the community, yet still reaps the benefits of their civilization. The following line, however, is surpassingly indicative of his function: “Except, that is, for the fathers who resorted to scaring their children with his image.” In much the same way that parents warn against pursuing solely pleasures (giving in to the Id), so the parents of the alley use the example of Zaita to deter their children from a life such as his. Despite the revolting picture Mahfouz paints of Zaita’s lifestyle, there is a certain allure to his countenance. Of all the characters in the alley, Zaita is the only one to attain any true form of happiness. Other characters, such as Hamida and Kirsha, have grand expectations and extravagant lifestyles which ultimately lead to their downfall. Zaita’s life, though used as warning, and condemned by those who believe they are above him, is the most fulfilled. Mahfouz uses Zaita to occasionally present the audience with an aside, such as the line in which he says: “Which of us is not at first welcomed into the world like a kind of kinds, to be later carried wherever ill fortune decrees? This is one of nature’s wisest treacheries. Were it to show us first what is in store for us, we would all refuse to leave the womb.” These short yet poignant remarks show the importance Mahfouz places on the Id: the deep sense of respect he has for human nature, despite all of its repulsive and disgusting qualities. Zaita is ignored by the rest of society, and yet has wisdom to offer. The Id is repressed at every conceivable turn, as Zaita is shunned by the alley folk. The final quality of Zaita which solidifies his purpose as the id in the alley is the alternate reality in which he lives. The id is entirely unaware of the external world and the passage of time; it lives only for the moment and the impulse. Zaita’s perspective on life in the alley, and in general, is remarkably different to everyone around him. For example, when recalling his childhood, he says: “All kinds of scum and insects floated on [the mudhole’s] surface. It was a beautiful sight! I would lift my eyelids, weighted down with flies, and wallow about in that delightful summer resort. I was the happiest person alive…” Though surrounded by what most would consider to be squalor and filth, Zaita sees only beauty, and is happier for it in his life. With this, Mahfouz wishes to make the point that the id is a useful and undeniable component of human society. It functions to make life enjoyable, even if the pleasure is short-lived, or entirely fictional.
Mahfouz creates Zaita as an essential part of the alley; though filthy, impulsive, and detached, he still serves his purpose. Mahfouz demonstrates that simplicity is often a route to happiness, and that this impulsivity is repressed by society at every turn. Zaita as a character is repulsive. Yet, Mahfouz crafts this disgust masterfully, and as a means to express his theme of the nature of human civilization. Though selfish, Zaita still aids others, although trapping them in the process. Though filthy, Zaita is more concerned with profound matters and his own pleasure than with societal standards of cleanliness. And though detached from the alley, living in his own imagined reality, Zaita still manages to be the happiest of the citizens of Mahfouz’s alley world.