The Sins of Midaq Alley
Throughout Naguib Mahfouz’s 1947 masterpiece Midaq Alley, the alley’s microcosmic nature turns its powerfully crafted characters into living renditions of sin. More specifically, Mahfouz creates characters to represent the Christian church’s Seven Deadly Sins, with almost each and every character fitting perfectly into a respective wedge in the famous painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Some characters fit into more than one sin, but they each fit into any one classification of Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride.
According to the church, as well as the famous Renaissance author Dante, Lust is the least offensive of the sins and is defined as an intense desire. This sin is most often interpreted to represent sexual desire, even in Mahfouz’s novel. Thus, it is most present throughout the stories of Mr. Kirsha as he courts the young salesman at the raiment shop as well as on his way home (46-52), and Salim Alwan, who eats a special recipe of “cooked green wheat, mixed with pieces of pigeon meat and ground nutmeg” that had a “magic effect [that] began at night and lasted for two full hours of sheer delight” (67). Interestingly enough, Alwan eats his bowl of wheat without fail every day, which represents Nimis. According to Thomas Aquinas, Nimis is a form of gluttony where the perpetrator eats too much. Gluttony is defined by the church as over-indulgence, of which Alwan lives a life of until his heart attack, when he becomes a cruel and bitter man.
Determined to be different from his father, Hussain Kirsha becomes consumed by Greed, which is similar to Lust and occasionally Gluttony, but it is desire in a materialistic sense. Hussain Kirsha runs off to join the British Imperial Army He joins fellow characters such as Saniya Afifiy, who “had a fondness for coffee, cigarettes, and hoarding bank notes. She kept [them] in a small ivory casket hidden in the depths of her clothes closet and arranged them in packages of fives and tens, delighting herself by looking at them, counting and rearranging them” (18). Also, it is revealed that Zaita and Dr. Booshy are quite greedy because they are caught stealing gold teeth from the recently deceased and then placing them in the mouths of the living and splitting the profits instead of performing legitimate practices that would slightly decrease the profit (224-228). Finally, Ibrahim Faraj lures in women under the guise of courting them only for them to later find out that he, as Hamida puts it, “[is] not a man, [he] is a pimp” (196), which allows him to spend extravagant amounts of money courting other women and repeating the cycle (160-168, 183-198). These characters show the many varieties of Greed, pointing out one of mankind’s greatest social and spiritual flaws that affects everyone as Kirsha profoundly states; “If money is the aim and object of those who squabble for power, then there is clearly no harm in money being the objective of the poor voters” (151), which expertly defines the idea that greed does not discriminate between people of any status.
Unlike the fidgety and greedy citizens, Uncle Kamil is a very happy man, which sadly leads to him dozing off at work and not doing much of anything. Kamil and Sheikh Darwish sit about and do very little, falling prey to the sin known as Sloth, or the act of simply being lazy. Mahfouz demonstrates the utter laziness of Kamil when he describes his business practices; “It is Uncle Kamil’s habit, even his right, to drop off to sleep with a fly whisk resting in his lap…and he can scarcely complete a sale of a sweet before he is overcome by a desire for sleep” (2). Unlike Uncle Kamil, who dozes off at work, Sheikh Darwish is an old man who has very little life left in him, yet he often interjects into the story in order to prove a point about what the characters have done, almost being a theatrical aside within the story itself. He is absent for the majority of the novel and only appears when prompted, as if he is a sideshow fortune teller machine, only moving and speaking when a dollar is inserted. His first appearance personifies this description when the old poet and Mr. Kirsha begin to argue: “At this the absentminded and statuesque man wearing the gold-rimmed spectacles and the necktie moved for the first time. He turned his gaze to the café’s roof and sighed so deeply that his friends almost expected pieces of flesh to come up with the passage of air…He lowered his head slowly, moving it to the left and to the right as he did so, with movements gradually decreasing in extent until he at last returned to his previous immobile position. Once again he sank into oblivion.” (6-7). Sheikh Darwish only moved in order to interrupt the conversation with enigmatic disdain of Mr. Kirsha before he simply returned to his previous position, becoming lifeless and slothful once again.
Returning to Mr. Kirsha, he and his wife are controlled by their anger as they simply define Wrath. During a fight between the two, Mrs. Kirsha attacks the boy that Kirsha has been seeing and yells “do you want to ruin my home, you rake and son of rakes!” and then “she fell upon him, punching and slapping him forcefully. His tarboosh fell off and blood flowed from his nose. She then grasped his necktie and pulled it till his voice trailed off in a strangled gasp.” (100). After Kirsha pulls his wife of off the boy, Mahfouz writes that “[Mrs. Kirsha’s] cloak fell to the ground and her blood was now boiling” (101) which shows the fury and rage that had built up inside of her due to her husband’s adulterous acts. Kirsha also demonstrates his fury when Hussain Kirsha tells his father that he wishes to leave to find a new life on his own. As it is described, Kirsha “flew into a rage and slapped Hussain hard in the face with the palm of his hand … [Kirsha] charged again, but his mother stood between them, taking the blows herself. Kirsha stopped striking out and yelled, ‘Take your black face away from me! … As far as I’m concerned you have died and gone to hell!’” (117). Also, surprisingly, Husniya, the humble baker’s wife, is also very wrathful. She is often shown beating her husband: “It especially delighted Zaita to watch [Husniya] beating her husband. She did this at his slightest mistake. Jaada’s days seemed to be filled with mistakes, for which he was constantly punished.” (129). Mrs. Afifiy, while not only greedy, is also a very envious woman. She goes to Umm Hamida to help herself find a suitor, an act brought on by her envy for Hamida, who is going to marry Abbas. Likewise, Umm Hamida envies her daughter as well, yet for her looks instead of her marriage because Umm Hamida’s beauty is fading while Hamida remains as a radiant young woman. This leads to some tension and several arguments between the mother and daughter. Zaita falls into this lot as well with his envy of Jaada. While it seems at first that he hates Jaada, it is soon revealed that he is envious of Jaada for having Husniya for his wife.
Finally, Hamida’s envy of the factory girls and their wealth leads to her tragic downfall by her greatest sin. Sadly, sweet young Hamida leads the parade of sinful characters representing the Christian church’s worst sin: Pride. Hamida constantly admires herself and dreams of the social status that marrying Salim will bring her as “her heart throbbed and her face flushed, her eyes glittering proudly…she wanted the other things it would bring: dignity, beautiful clothes, pride” (142). Joining her are the likes of Salim Alwan, who ranted about how the poor men behave and disdained them for it just because they are of lower social status than he; “Why, they scarcely have a penny to their names, yet they see no reason why they shouldn’t get married and populate the whole alley with children who get their food from garbage carts” (139), Ibrahim Faraj, who constantly belittles Hamida in order to build himself up and make her feel inferior to him (254-259), and Hussain Kirsha, who leaves the alley entirely in order to find a life that he feels is better than the one he has because he feels that he is socially above the alley (112-118).
In the end of the novel, it is shown that even the worst sins of the inhabitants of the alley are wiped away. All of the greed, envy, lust, pride, gluttony, sloth and wrath-driven acts of the characters are forgotten with time and the alley adapts to the changes. Some people move in and others leave, and all the while the alley maintains its place. Mahfouz’s final message to the reader is that even though people do wrong, all can be forgiven.
Maḥfouẓ, Naguib, and Trevor Le Gassick. Midaq Alley. New York: Anchor, 1992. Print.
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