Naguib Mahfouz’s Depiction of Zaita as “the Id” in Midaq Alley
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.
Societal Implications in Midaq Alley
In the novel Midaq Alley, author Naguib Mahfouz depicts a poorer middle eastern alley. This measly Alley doesn’t act only as a physical barrier, but a societal one as well. Midaq Alley is shielded from the rest of the world, and has little outside influence. As a result, many of its inhabitants have become very set in Midaq Alley’s conditions and social traditions, and subsequently, have become very troubled. These traditions conflict with the very ambitious modern young adults growing in the Alley. However, as their Mahfouz tells their tragic stories, it seems as if the young characters can not overcome the Alley’s limits. The traditional society confines the youth which creates more broken people.
The conservative gender roles force Hamida to manipulate others to achieve her goals. Overall, her ultimate goal is to achieve wealth. Far from the normal girl her age, she did not look forward to getting married and having a life consisting of “sweeping, cooking, washing, and feeding children to look forward to, but instead was called the “ambitious girl” of the Alley (21). She dreamt of obtaining material things beyond her means, arguing, “What the point of living was if one can’t have new clothes?”, placing even luxury over the necessities when she is impoverished. However, despite all her yearning, she understands that to become wealthy, she must marry a wealthy man, who she then tries to pursue for the rest of the novel. However, because she is limited by her partner, she realizes that she may be subject to a husband that does not match her ambition or her love of money. She sees this in her first suitor Abbas, as she said she “dreamed of a husband like the rich contractor her neighbor had married”. She sees Abbas and is disappointed, she is only attracted because “his passionate glances pleased her”. Hamida sees someone whose loyalty she can exploit and use for her own benefit. Later in the novel, Hamida resorts to manipulation to coerce Abbas when she says that “He had fallen into her trap even faster than she had hoped”. While Hamida is not blameless in this behavior, the gender restrictions that don’t allow her to alleviate her own poverty, and follow her own ambition is motivation for her to continue being deceitful (23).
The lack of resources in Midaq Alley leads to Hussain’s frivolous chase for fame and his subsequent loss of it. Hussain was driven by grandeur and importance, and he is first described as a man who finds his worth in being a British soldier, a much higher paying job than anything available in Midaq Alley. When talking to Abbas, about the army he explained that he saw war “as a blessing” and “sent by God”, which demonstrates how deeply his character wants to live above the standards set for him. He uses this money to live lavishly and impress friends, as made apparent by his nickname: “Hussain Kirsha the Large”. Hussain’s frivolous spending seems to be in spite of his poverty growing up in the area, which he describes as a “filthy Alley” (19). Due to this reckless mindset, most of his self-worth is tied to his enrollment in the British Army. Explaining life in the military Hussain Kirsha states:
“Hussain Kirsha, in his usual prattling manner, began telling the barber about life in the depot, about the workers, their good wages, the thefts, about his adventures with the British, and the affection and admiration the soldiers showed him. Corporal Julian,” he related proudly, “once told me that the only difference between me and the British is that of color. He tells me to be careful with my money, but an arm” (and here he waved wildly) “which can make money during the war can make double that in times of peace. When do you think the war will be over? Don’t let the Italian defeat fool you, they didn’t matter anyway. Hitler will fight for twenty years! Corporal Julian is impressed with my bravery and has a blind faith in me. He trusts me so much that he has let me in on his big trade in tobacco, cigarettes, chocolate, knives, bedcovers, socks, and shoes! Nice, isn’t it?” (19)
This passage demonstrates Hussain Kirsha’s insecurity, as he gets excited at a passive attempt to create and unequal relationship with his superior, when the joke is a slightly derogatory joke directed towards him! Hussain needs the British Army enrollment so he can come back and tell stories to his peers in the Midaq Alley, whom he holds in no esteem, but whose attention he enjoys. This passage also demonstrates how permanent Hussain expects this job to be. His mention of an unstoppable Hitler shows how he expects continued employment, and how he expected this lifestyle to continue.
However, Hussain is unpleasantly surprised when the war ends and he is surprise about “how the war could have ended so quickly” and how he returned to the Alley “as penniless as he had left” (126). His original lack of material things led to a reckless ambition, which led him to spend unwisely.
The continuous limitations within the Alley create the broken people that make up the broken society. The same barriers that blocked Hamida and Hussain, have plagued Midaq Alley for generations. Ms. Afify is an example of how gender roles confine women to have to yearn for something. Even as a wealthy business women, she was not complete until she could marry. The lowered expectations create these niche roles that benefit the community, but are devious in nature. People like the predatory Mr. Kirsha and the sociopath Zaita are in high demand, and their niches within the Alley allows them to continually abuse the other inhabitants. The broken dreams, tortured people, and depraved characters create a cycle. As the youth grow and can’t progress, they feel trapped and gain vices, which leads to other behavior and psychological issues.
The Significance of Setting in Naguib Mahfouz’s “Midaq Alley” and Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”
Naguib Mahfouz and Franz Kafka both use setting as an important literary feature in their respective works, Midaq Alley and The Metamorphosis. Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley takes place in the back streets of Cairo, Egypt during the Second World War, specifically in Midaq Alley. The alley is home to various inhabitants, including the heroine, Hamida, who desperately seeks to escape the monotony of life in the alley. The Metamorphosis, on the other hand, depicts a middle-class family, the Samsas, living in an apartment in Germany near the start of the First World War. The protagonist, Gregor, transforms into an insect at the start of the novella and is left confined to his bedroom. Gregor’s bedroom serves as a reflection of his dehumanizing transformation, and it becomes his coffin when he perishes at the end of the novella. In their works, both Mahfouz and Kafka present protagonists imprisoned by their settings, who, in their attempts to escape, exhibit the true cost of captivity.Gregor’s bedroom, the major setting of The Metamorphosis, physically imprisons Gregor from the start of the novella. His transformation into an insect creates obstacles for him; for example, Kafka spends much of the exposition of the novella describing Gregor’s attempts to get off of the bed. Gregor’s lack of freedom in his apartment is used as a reflection of his debilitating transformation. Gregor leaves the bedroom to try to explain to the Deputy Director why he was not at work that morning, and, in doing so, feels immediately free: “This had hardly happened, when for the first time that morning he felt a sense of physical well-being. […] Suddenly, he believed that the ultimate relief of all his suffering was at hand” (Kafka, 620). However, Gregor’s father quickly forces him back into his bedroom, where he stays for most of the novella. Within the apartment, the bedroom becomes Gregor’s place of exile. He is never allowed out, and he spends most of his time staring out of the window, if “only in some kind of nostalgia for the feeling of freedom he had previously found in looking out the window” (626). Furthermore, the bedroom not only confines Gregor, but also taints his view of the world around him: “If he had not known very well that he lived in the quiet, but distinctly urban Charlotte Street, he could have believed that he looked out of his window into a desert in which the gray sky and the gray earth merged indistinguishably” (626).While the bedroom physically imprisons Gregor in The Metamorphosis, Midaq Alley culturally imprisons Hamida in Midaq Alley. Midaq Alley is rich in Eastern culture but at odds with the more progressive aspects of an Egypt emerging into Western society. Hamida has a desire to leave the alley, and her strong ambition lies in her dreams of wealth and success. While she grew up and resides in Midaq Alley, she takes daily walks down Mousky Street both to test the limits of her confinement and to admire those who are freer than she. Hamida dreams of life outside the alley, and yet her vague ambitions are “limited to her familiar world, which [ends] at Queen Farida Square. She [knows] nothing of life beyond it” (40). She envies the Egyptian girls that she meets on her daily walks, who, “taking advantage of wartime employment opportunities, [ignore] custom and tradition and now [work] in public places just like the Jewish women” (40). Hamida’s imprisonment is also presented in her reluctant engagement to Abbas, the young barber who prefers Midaq Alley “to any place in the whole world” (87). As an emblem of the alley’s culture and morals, Abbas envisions a future in which he and Hamida live together in the alley as man and wife, a vision not shared by Hamida. Abbas discusses his dreams with her, saying, “‘We will be the happiest two in the alley,’” to which Hamida replies with a scowl, “‘Midaq Alley!’” (87). Hamida believes in a future outside of the alley and is “aware of the great gulf between this humble young man and her own greedy ambitions” (82). Despite her apathy towards Abbas, she agrees to marry him, thinking that she cannot ask for anyone better in the alley. Hamida puts her dreams on hold for her marriage to Abbas, and thus she incarcerates herself even further in the prison of Midaq Alley.Gregor and Hamida both make attempts to escape in The Metamorphosis and Midaq Alley, although to varying degrees of success. Gregor leaves his bedroom twice after his initial foray into the living room at the start of the novella, and both departures contribute to his death. Gregor first emerges when trying to prevent the removal of the furniture from his room, seeing it as a blow to his humanity: “Did he really want to let them transform the warm room… into a cave?” (628). His beleaguered sister locks him out of the room, and his father comes home and embeds an apple deep in Gregor’s back, forcing him back into his bedroom. Gregor’s final attempt at escape comes near the end of the novella. When Gregor’s family rents a room to three lodgers, Gregor’s bedroom becomes a receptacle for useless trash, a reflection of the Samsa family’s gradual abandonment of Gregor and his lowered status in the apartment. After long periods of starvation, Gregor is drawn out of the room by his sister’s violin playing, which guides him “to the sustenance he had unknowingly desired” — a signal that he can no longer endure the starvation in his bedroom (636). While listening to the music of the violin, he begins to dream of a time when his sister “would not be forced, but would rather stay with him willingly” in his bedroom, expressing his hope that his bedroom can once again become a place of tranquility (636). However, these dreams are crushed when the lodgers discover him on the dining room floor and exit in fury. In the face of his family’s anguish, Gregor returns to his bedroom, and, after overhearing a conversation in which his sister doubts his status as a human being, he perishes.In Midaq Alley, Hamida escapes the alley through the allure of the pimp, Ibrahim Faraj. Faraj represents, to Hamida, everything which the alley is not able to provide; he is “her life, her hope, her strength, and her happiness” (200). Through him, she is able to fully realize how Midaq Alley has imprisoned her: “Was there any other way of slipping the noose of the past except with this man who had lighted such a fire within her?” (200-201). In the realization of her dreams, she not only escapes the physical setting of Midaq Alley (by beginning her life in Faraj’s apartment), but she sheds her cultural shackles as well. Faraj bestows Hamida with everything she could want, and she becomes extravagantly beautiful and wealthy. This dramatic transformation, however, causes her spiritual self to die, as symbolized by her name change to “Titi” upon her arrival at Faraj’s apartment. Faraj explains, “‘That’s your new name. Keep it and forget Hamida, for she has ceased to exist!’” (216). While Faraj’s apartment provides Hamida with everything she previously wished for, Faraj’s mistreatment of her maims her soul. Hamida never returns to the alley, both physically and spiritually; she becomes a completely changed person, with little hope of returning to the values and ideals set upon her by the alley that she had so despised for most of her life.The settings of both The Metamorphosis and Midaq Alley are the sources of imprisonment for the protagonists, Gregor and Hamida. Gregor’s bedroom physically sets him apart from his cherished family and taints his view of the rest of the world, while Midaq Alley imposes traditional Eastern values on a young, ambitious Hamida. Gregor’s bedroom starts as his sanctuary but becomes his prison; and although he attempts to leave, he realizes in the end that, just as he used to fit a proper place in society, so does he fit a proper place in the apartment. His final return to the bedroom represents an ultimate understanding of his imprisonment and of the futility of his attempts to escape. In a similar fashion, Hamida leaves the restrictions of Midaq Alley and, in doing so, becomes a completely different person — unrecognizable to herself afterwards. However, unlike Gregor, she does not return to her prison in a moment of final comprehension. In the final chapter of Midaq Alley, Mahfouz reveals that Hamida has moved far away from the alley in an effort to rebuild her life. She is successful in leaving Midaq Alley, but Mahfouz clearly presents the cost of leaving, suggesting that the old Hamida is metaphorically dead. Through the authors’ use of setting, Gregor’s bedroom and Midaq Alley impose restraints upon the dreams of Gregor and Hamida. Those restraints, by their very nature, express the dominance of the setting over the characters’ lives and enforce the fatal penalty of attempts at escape.Works CitedKafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Trans. Alexis Walker. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.Mahfouz, Naguib. Midaq Alley. Trans. Trevor Le Gassick. New York: Anchor Books, 1992.
Women and Their Downfall: Feminism in Midaq Alley
Naguib Mahfouz’s novel, Midaq Alley, is a story about a group of people living in an alley in Egypt in the 1940’s. Already, from that description, the reader can see that the women of this tale have a significant disadvantage in equality. Surprisingly enough, the women prove to be very strong, independent, and powerful, despite the novel’s setting and time. But, is that altogether true? There are many instances where the women rise above and take things for themselves when they want it. They beat their husbands, call the men out on their sins, swindle their way toward a higher rank, and try to escape the reality of their alley life, yet, no matter their dominance, they are always defeated or put back in their place by the male characters of the book. Midaq Alley is a representation of feminism in the 1940’s, signifying that even in a male-led society in Africa, women can and will do what it takes to be equal, or, in a sense, be the dominant sex. Women have powerful attributes that allow them to do this, but, in the end, their powers turn out to be their own downfall, because it is still a male-led society.
Midaq Alley entails the stories of many people living in the alley, but, arguably, the main focus is on the character of Hamida, an independent and ambitious young woman living with her foster mother. She is described as a very pretty girl with “black, beautiful eyes, the pupils and whites of which contrasted in a most striking and attractive way.” (Mahfouz 14). Yet, “…she could take on an appearance of strength and determination which was most unfeminine.” (Mafouz 14). It is very evident that the narration of Hamida’s beauty is written from a male perspective, drawing out the way Hamida uses or, perhaps to state it more clearly, does not use her femininity to prove her feminist way. In his article, “Narrating the marginalized Oriental female: silencing the colonized Subaltern,” Saddik Gohar states that “Even in episodes in which [Hamida] was given focus, the readers see her through the spectacles of the male imperial narrator embodying the voice of the author or via the eyes of the male characters in the novel” (Gohar 52). Already we can see how Hamida’s sexually pleasing attributes sway the narrator and the male character’s even before she begins her journey or proves the descriptions we see of her. As an established beautiful and strong woman in this alley, Hamida’s story is revealed. She has a difficult time finding a husband that suits her independent ways and desire for wealth above love and affection. She longs to marry for riches, and she hates the idea of the domestic life of raising children. “…the most commonly said thing about her was that she hated children and that this unnatural trait made her wild and totally lacking in the virtues of femininity” (Mahfouz 22). She wants to see the world, but the only way she can think of following her dreams is to marry a rich man. In this era and location, that truly is her only escape. She wishes she had been educated as a young child like the Jewish women in her town, but, “her age and ignorance had deprived her of their opportunities” (Mahfouz 22). According to Sheridene Barbara Oersen, in her thesis essay from the University of the Western Cape, the feminist movement of western culture was just spreading its wings toward the East, announcing that women are capable of receiving a proper education. It soon became policy, but in Oersen’s words, “government policy and societal beliefs are seldom harmonious and most families did not see the necessity of having their daughters educated.
The crucial aspect of raising a girl was to ensure that she would make a good wife, and because Hamida is from the poorest class of society, she has not been afforded the opportunity of a basic education” (Oersen 62). Because of Hamida’s independence and unfeminine-like attitude, she soon realizes that she can take her life into her own hands. When she is discussing marriage with her mother, she says, “I am not the one who is chasing marriage, but marriage is chasing me. I will give it a good run, too!” (Mahfouz 15). This indicates that she feels trapped in a situation that she wants to get out of. She feels as if she is above the alley and the people that live there. She first reluctantly accepts a proposal from Abbas, the barber, after he promises to get a job outside the alley, but later in the book, she finds other means of escaping her alley prison. She, and other women in the book, escape their plights by using their cunning deception and sexual charm. Hamida, when starting her love affair with Abbas, finds ways to manipulate the man so she can get what she desires. She deceives the one that actually loves her, because she knows he won’t give her the wealth and adventure she longs for. She forces him into leaving the place he enjoys living in and to becoming a man he wasn’t meant to be. Stephanie Hasenfus puts it quite simply in her article, “Destroy or Be Destroyed: Contending with Toxic Social Structures in Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley.” She states, “[Hamida] transforms marriage into a tactical endeavor from which she hopes to maximize potential luxury in her life” (Hasenfus 99). Hamida does this by purposefully displaying her beauty and comparing herself to other women. According to the text: “She was well aware of her attire; a faded cotton dress, an old cloak and shoes with timeworn soles. Nevertheless, she draped her cloak in such a way that it emphasized her ample hips and her full and rounded breasts. The cloak revealed her trim ankles, on which she wore a bangle; it also exposed her black hair and attractive bronze face” (Mahfouz 21-22). And, “She walked along with her companions, proud in the knowledge of her beauty, impregnable in the armor of her sharp tongue, and pleased that the eyes of passersby settled on her more than on the others” (Mahfouz 23). Hamida is not only a beautiful girl with an unfeminine attitude, but she also knows how to attract men with these attributes. Hasenfus powerfully acknowledges this by saying, “For Hamida, remaining single inevitably means letting old age steal her beauty while she remains stranded in the alley. She recognizes that her beauty is her only advantage, her only source of power. Her beauty allows her to seduce men, and thereby, to control them” (Hasenfus 99). Along with sexual charm, women have other ways of proving themselves superior to men in the novel.
Beauty is a strong asset used to dominate, but being able to tactfully use it as a ruse for the ultimate goal requires cunning and deceptive strength. In Hamida’s story, we already know that she is independent, strong, and deceptive with one goal in mind: to marry a man outside of the alley that has riches beyond compare. Hasenfus explains while describing Hamida’s goals and modernity of her ways that “in this forward-thinking fashion, she transforms marriage into a tactical endeavor from which she hopes to maximize potential luxury in her life” (Hasenfus 99). It is no mystery how Hamida cunningly deceives the men around her. Her beauty is used in a clever display of her dominance. Abbas is determined to marry her, and, because of her desire for riches, he feels obligated to leave the alley to work for the British Army though he is quite content with how things are. In the novel, Hamida is only interested in his proposed idea of working in the war to gain more money, and “if he were successful he could certainly provide some of the things she craved. A disposition like hers, no matter how rebellious and unmanageable, could be pacified and tamed with money” (Mahfouz 46). Hamida is a prime example of a woman using deception to get what she wants, but she is not the only woman in the alley. Yet another woman uses tact to reach her goal, despite her increasing age. Miss Afify and Umm Hamida trick a younger man into marrying Miss Afify by buying her gold teeth and giving the man a younger picture of herself.
Miss Afify is an aging widow that recently decided to marry once again. The text does not specify exactly why she has decided this, but Oersen, has an astounding way of looking at it. She says, “It appears that over the years, Mrs Saniyya Afify has found herself increasingly isolated from society. Despite her wealth, she has no social status because she is an unmarried woman.” (Oersen 57). This makes a lot of sense when looking at women at the time. Women in that time and place could be very rich and prosperous, but without being married, they lack the title of a prosperous individual. A title comes with a man, so, to have a high place in society, a woman must be married. Sadly, Oersen relays that, “Through the character of Mrs Afify, it can be assumed that even wealth and the many political changes in favour of women are not enough to crush traditional societal mores” (Oersen 58). Saniyya Afify achieves this marriage a comical and unconventional way, however. Because she lacks her youthful beauty, she and Umm Hamida come up with a plan to deceive the match Umm Hamida found for her. The two begin by discussing the man and his job and wealth. Then Umm Hamida says that he wanted a picture of Miss Afify, to which this dialogue takes place: The widow fidgeted and her face blushed as she said, “Why, I haven’t had my picture taken in a long time.” “Don’t you have an old photo?” She nodded toward a picture on the bookcase in the middle of the room. Umm Hamida leaned over and examined it carefully. The photo must have been more than six years old, taken at a time when Mrs. Afify still had some fullness and life in her. She looked at the picture then back at its subject. “A very good likeness. Why, it might have been taken only yesterday.” “May God reward you generously,” sighed Mrs. Afify. Umm Hamida put the photograph, with its frame, into her pocket and lit the cigarette offered her (Mahfouz 64). Not only are they giving the man an old photo of Miss Afify, but Umm Hamida also tells him that she is in her 40’s and not the late 50’s age she is. Along with this deception, Mrs. Afify buys a set of golden teeth to cover the fact that her teeth have been rotting and falling out with her age.
For her part, Hamida not only deceives Abbas in the beginning, cunningly sending him off to make riches for herself, but also deceives him later after she becomes a prostitute. Gohar says that “when she encountered Abbas in part thirty-two, she cunningly moved him against Farag in order to get rid of both males according to critical allegations” (Gohar 56). Hamida wishes to get out of her situation, yet, she is disgusted by the thought of going back to the alley and living with Abbas for the rest of her life. Her deceptive strength takes a hold of her, and she, once again, brings Abbas to doing something he would never do. Hussain tries to warn Abbas, and being like a brother to Hamida, he can see through her beauty and deception. Oersen says, Hussain’s reaction is harsh but completely in line with traditional social values…. Abbas feels that the man should be punished and although Hussain agrees, his absolute disgust with Hamida is expressed as follows: ‘Why didn’t you murder her? If I were in your position, I wouldn’t have hesitated a minute. I’d have throttled her on the spot and then butchered her lover and disappeared…That’s what you should have done, you fool! [Mahfouz,1992: 279]’” (Oersen 59). Hamida’s deception can only go so far, and, though it works on Abbas, Hussain is immune to it. There is another man that is immune to Hamida’s deceptive ways, and he leads us into the last section, revealing how although women in the novel try to be the dominant sex, they ultimately fail due to societal customs and beliefs. This man is Ibraham Farah. Hamida is the most prominent key to seeing the strength the women of this culture possess. She represents Egypt as a whole, and allows Farah to take advantage of her just to prove how strong she is. In allowing the man to dominate her every moment, she feels she is getting the upper hand and being the dominant one in the relationship. She, like many women, uses her body and sexual charm to lord over men, and, in return, she soon realizes her mistake.
To get on top in the society that the novel depicts, women must sacrifice something. This could include freedom, virginity, innocence, happiness, morality, or dignity. Hamida loses her virginity, morality, and innocence when she runs off with Ibraham, though she feels she is dominant in the situation. She wants love from him, but all she gets is his love for the money she is making him. She tries to tie him down, but he won’t have it, and, in return, she falls into his trap. Gohar states that Hamida believed [Farah] fell in love with her like others and was intoxicated by his warm words: ‘This is not your quarter, nor are these people relatives of yours. You are completely different. You do not belong here at all. How can you live among these people? Who are they compared to you? You are a princess in a shabby cloak’ (143) (Gohar 55). Sadly, Hamida is simply receiving what she dished out to Abbas. Farah woos her with his kind words, promises, and wealth, bringing her to her ultimate downfall. No matter what the women of the novel do, however, the social order of the time and place simply can not allow a woman to dominate. It was clear from the beginning that Hamida would not get her way, and if she did, she would lose part of herself, but why was this so evident? Bede Scott, in his article, “’A Raging Sirocco’: Structures of Dysphoric Feeling in Midaq Alley,” sheds some light on the problem. He says: “The intervention of colonial modernity in the novel radically destabilizes the old social order, yet without implementing a new order that can be easily comprehended by the characters or assimilated into their lives. And because they are unable to understand fully the processes of transformation they are undergoing, because these processes are not entirely visible to their consciousness, many of the characters internalize a vague sense of social crisis which eventually resurfaces in the form of displaced anger” (Scott 33). Because this time in Egypt is a huge moment in the transition between the old ways and the new ways, the people of Midaq Alley are agitated. They long for the new, but cannot let go of the old. The women face this in a way the men do not realize. They see progress and realize that this is their time to show their true colors, yet, because the men are still tied to old cultural traditions, the women get no further in their pursuit of equality.
Women, specifically Hamida, in the novel Midaq Alley, are faced with a growing sense of the outside world, and a newfound means to reach their goals and find dominance in a relationship with a man. No matter the way they try, however, society can not allow them to reach these heights, and places them back down in a domestic situation, cooking and cleaning and raising children just as they have always done. Women have strong attributes that allows them to find ways around these societal norms, but, in the end, a valuable part of a woman can be lost when they try such feats.
Gohar, Saddik. “Narrating the marginalized Oriental female: silencing the colonized subaltern.” Acta Neophilologica, vol. 48, no. 1-2, 2015, pp. 49–66., doi:10.4312/an.48.1- 2.49-66. Hasenfus, Stephanie. “Destroy or Be Destroyed: Contending with Toxic Social Structures in Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley.” The Oswald Review: An International Journal of Undergraduate Research and Criticism in the Discipline of English, vol. 15, no. 1, 1 Jan. 2015, pp. 95–108. The United States Military Academy, West Point, New York. Available at: http://scholarcommons.sc.edu/tor/vol15/iss1/7 Maḥfūz, Najīb. Midaq Alley. Translated by Trevor Li Gassick, The American University in Cairo Press, 1966. Oersen, Sheridene Barbara. “The representation of women in four of Naguib Mahfouzs realist novels: Palace walk, Palace of desire, Sugar street and Midaq alley.” The University of the Western Cape, The University of the Western Cape, 2006. Scott, Bede. ““A Raging Sirocco”: Structures of Dysphoric Feeling in Midaq Alley.” Journal of Arabic Literature, vol. 42, no. 1, Jan. 2011, pp. 29–48., doi:10.1163/157006411×575792.
Anaesthetizing as a Form of Escapism: How and Why Midaq Alley Inhabitants Intoxicate Themselves
With the rise of individualism in the 20th century, people had become distant and detached, while worrying about trying to communicate, and dreading being misunderstood. The Egyptian society itself at the time was on a brink of an abrupt state of deconstruction – religiously, socially, politically, ideologically, and economically. Midaq Alley explores this concept of desolation and how it affects the people differently through the eyes of its inhabitants and their choices, and by extension, their lives. Each of the main character suffers from the banality of the Alley, as well as the dissatisfaction and frustration aroused from it and the rest of its inhabitants. And in order to overcome this misery, each of them chose a way to distract him/herself from their very own mundane reality, be it by drugs, gossip, sex, violence, destructive ambitions, marriage, or by being vexed and cursing the entire Alley.
Abbas El-Helw, one of the main characters, reflects on the situation by saying that “(They)’re miserable…In a miserable country, among miserable people. How sad it is to never taste happiness till the whole world broke into war!” The World War gave the Alley a purpose, a way to feel relevant to the world again, and thus gave the inhabitants a sense of attachment. They long to be more than who they are, and to belong to somewhere else other than the Alley. This is specifically reflected on Hamida and Hussein Kersha. Hussein chooses to volunteer in the British army to escape the Alley. He then starts drinking, and relentlessly spends all his money till he loses all his savings along with his job, and ends up bitter, cynical, and indifferent even to his own life and to others, as he tells Abbas, “You fear for yourself? Let it kill you. So what? It’s not like you’re getting any better or any worse” As for Hamida, she is trying to fill a void in her life. She is parentless which caused a conflict between her desire to have a home of her own, and her appreciation to the woman who raised her. Hamida’s choice of intoxication is hiding behind her ego and pretty face, masking her fear in confidence, while pursuing her vaulting ambitions. Her pursuit to fill that void came in the forms of love, offered by Abbas El-Helw, money, offered by Mister Selim Elwan, but only Farag Ibrahim knew how to challenge her sense of dissatisfaction by pushing her towards an extreme of emotions and conflicts to the point of self-destruction.
The newness of Farag Ibrahim’s propositions drugs her completely that she forgets that “(she) is lost in the labyrinth that is Life” and for a while she escapes this forlorn Alley.Since the Alley is beating with loneliness and dissatisfaction, escaping isolation has become the creator of every desire. Abbas El-Helw, a barber, is content with where he is financially, however, he could not himself escape the routine or the isolation. In order to escape, he decides to pursue Hamida, and convince her to marry him. He loves her but what she gives him is a purpose to do something more as he loves the idea of her more than he loves her for herself, thus making herself his own ticket to attachment and relevance. Other inhabitants, such as Zeeta, the maker of deformities, whose way of numbing his pain is by manipulation, and by small acts of sadism that reflect his inferiority complex. He lives, literally and metaphorically, on deforming people.
Another such character is Kersha, who is exasperated by the inhabitants constant gossiping about his private life, and by his wife’s fighting, gets high almost every night in order to forget about the people’s talk so he can freely explore his sexuality. He yells, “What is wrong with people refusing to leave me at peace, or forget about me so they can be at peace themselves?” Thus, instead of living their lives, they numb themselves causing indifference to sneak into their lives and those around them, resulting in harm as in the case of Kersha. And one of the inhabitants that thrives on gossiping is Hamida’s mother. Her way of surviving the banality and the dissatisfaction is by relying on distracting gossip and arranging marriages that she can benefit from. Among those who she was willing to exploit is Mister Selim Elwan when he asked her daughter for marriage. Selim Elwan himself uses drugs to deal with helplessness and sudden realization of mortality. He feels abandoned by his sons, and revolted by his wife. Knowing that they have sins to bear, the inhabitants go to their Sheikh to get blessings, advises, or to feel better about themselves. The religious discourse used by Sheikh Radwan, reminds them with Life more than the Afterlife causing two polarized feelings which are either to be repulsed by the man and his sayings, or to be opiated by the idea that everything happens for a reason, and they can be forgiven no matter what.
Midaq Alley is filled with characters who dream of a glorified version of life to avoid the frustration they face on daily basis. They numb themselves from aches and dissatisfaction by the usage of drugs, gossip, inflicting pain, and exploitation, while living as victims to a relentless society created by themselves, and as prisoners in their own skin.
Jealousy in Midaq Alley
Throughout Midaq Alley, the jealousy of the characters is their constant companion and their undoing. The themes of the novel work alongside the jealousy of the characters and ultimately the tragedy of the ending is caused by the jealousy that is simmering throughout the book. Abbas and Hamida are the ultimate victims of the jealousy, but everyone is jealous in some way. In this essay, I will speak about the ways that jealousy foreshadows the tragic events. Most of the characters are using Hamida as their token of jealousy.
One of the most compelling characters in the book is Salim Alwan who is depicted as an openly devilish character who is in sharp contrast to Abbas, the symbol of pure love. However, Salim is not without jealousy. In fact, Salim is described as “a veritable crouching tiger, willing to cringe and fawn until he mastered his adversary, and woe to anyone he did master!” (66).
Salim Alwan has a jealousy of possessiveness. Nothing is good enough for him. His wife is jealous of his sexual conquests because he is constantly trying to prove that he is virile. He does not have the only marriage that is suffering from jealousy and infidelities. The Kirshas are also fighting with Mrs. Kirsha angrily attacking her husband’s lover.
When Salim Alwan makes overtures to Hamida, he is angry to find out that she has been pledged to Abbas in a previous engagement. Salim Alwan’s jealousy has no rational basis. He is not being cheated on. Hamida never knew that he was interested in her. Furthermore, Salim is above Hamida in the social class so she has no reason to wait for him. Yet, he is angry because his pride is hurt.
It is only when Hamida agrees to marry Salim that he has any satisfaction and in that satisfaction, he has a massive heart attack and puts Hamida’s plans with Abbas into a quagmire.
Hamida has a different type of jealousy. It’s the kind of jealousy that makes her want more out of her life. While her mother finds matches between lonely and desperate neighbors, Hamida moves away from the “pure” romance of Abbas and moves onto the wealth of Salim Alwan. While Salim Alwan is jealous of Hamida’s engagement to Abbas, Hamida is jealous of people who live the easy life of wealth.
Thus, Hamida leaves Abbas for Salim and even after Salim is out of the picture, Hamida no longer wants the meager ambitions of Abbas who is part of the neighborhood and not nearly as interesting or as wealthy as anything she wants in her life.
When Hamida is followed and seduced by Ibrahim Faraj, her transition into the life of prostitution becomes almost a commentary on the upward mobility of the characters and how they can only advance through humiliation.
Abbas is supposedly the pure and innocent character who is brought down by tragedy, but he seems to be the author of his fate. Abbas is in love with Hamida, but he never provides much more for Hamida than what she expects out of him. Once Hamida starts seeking other lives, Abbas is left behind.
It is when Hamida informs Hamida of her fate in order to hopefully take down Faraj that things become complicated. Abbas is supposedly the gentle one because he never thought that he had to worry about Hamida. He gets engaged to her and then immediately joins the military so that she can consider an engagement to Salim and when he returns he is upset that she no longer “belongs” to him. The sense of ownership is with Abbas throughout the book and it is only in the later chapters that he imposes his ownership upon Hamida.
Once he finds Hamida flirting with the British soldiers, he slashes her face in a way to show that she will always belong to him. Abbas’ jealousy has driven him to this place; however, Abbas is also attempting to assert control in the only way he knows how which is through desecration of someone that supposedly belongs to him. In this final act, Abbas proves that for all of his beliefs in purity and true love, he is merely a jealous angry man who cannot allow anyone else to “have” a woman that he has claimed.
There are many characters in Midaq Alley and their lives intertwine throughout the narrative. Still, one can see that Hamida is often the most fascinating due to the fact that the rest of the characters want to impose their will upon Hamida. For Abbas, Hamida is an innocent who will be his wife. When she proves that she is not innocent, he attempts to destroy her. For Salim, she is a possession that will allow him to keep his libido satisfied while Ibrahim Faraj sees her as a worker to be exploited for her beauty. Of all these men, she appears to get the most out of Faraj who gives her employment even as he exploits her labor. Yet jealousy will never allow Hamida to find her own place in the world and Abbas forcibly reminds her that like many women in her position, she is property to be damaged as the owner sees fit.