Naguib Mahfouz’s literary Marvel, Midaq Alley, and the distinctive character of Abbas

The beauty of Mahfouz’s characters is that they all stand out from each other. With Midaq Alley’s setting in the Egypt during the Second World War, the wave of modernisation was strange yet captivating for every individual which holds an important role in the novel. Torn in the shades of black and white, New and Classics, conservative minds and so called open-mindedness the characters are constantly seen struggling on many levels.

From the beginning, Midaq Alley is introduced as “the gems of times gone by,” representing the sub-conscious mind of the characters that inhabit it. Furthermore, the alley is not affected by the chaos of the world outside of itself, it keeps itself alive by thriving on the lives of the residents that reside upon this “side street in Cairo.”

However, these residents get influenced by the sweeping tides of westernisation which disguised as modernity, prove to be quite a temptation – so much so that many characters leave behind the stability of their own culture to uphold unfamiliar, alien ideals.

One such character is the idealistic Abbas, whose life in the alley is, initially, one of comfort and happiness. The owner of a barber shop, he is doing well by the alley’s standards. Moreover, intoxicated by love, he survives Hamida’s initial rebuffs and idealistically interprets her disinterest as proof of her deep regard. His blind commitment yields successful in this endeavor, as he gets engaged to her.

Yet, the quiet life he had planned with Hamida in the alley doesn’t seem enough now, as Hussain Kirsha points out that “[Hamida] is an ambitious girl, and you’ll never win her unless you change your life.” The fear of losing her acts as an obstruction to the things the alley has blessed Abbas with – like a stable income, good neighbours and a happy life – and he begins to view the alley as “a place that did not treat its inhabitants fairly. It did not reward them in proportion to their love for it. It tended to smile on those who abused it and abused those who smiled on it.”

This prodding from his friend Hussain exposes Abbas to the temporary allure of material values of wealth and status, making him vulnerable to the extent that he forgets that the alley had never deprived him of anything before. But the promise of a better, more flourishing future outside of the alley coupled with the “seductive smell” of bank notes compels him to leave the alley and join the British Army for a one to two year stint – all in the hopes of becoming a better provider for his betrothed.

However, Abbas’s impulsive irrationality – to quickly discard his roots from the alley for the sake of modernisation – results in him being more frustrated and anguished when he returns to broken promises, and ridicule; suggesting how one couldn’t up and do away with traditions and value in order to amplify one’s material, modern prospects. Furthermore, as consequence for daring to go after futile objects of money and love, Abbas is beaten to death by soldiers after he throws a glass at Hamida’s face.

Thus, his tragic flaw became his idealism. His ingratitude and inability to control his jealousy – which he used as a fuel to fire his rage leading to devastating actions; destroying any chances of having peace and harmony within himself. Therefore, insulted – the personified alley used his dreams and pseudo ambitions to make his reality all the more difficult – using its inhabitants to expose Abbas to the potential for luxury, tempting him with it, and then showcasing the harsh reality and consequences that lay on the other side.

Furthermore, Abbas did not heed Radwan Hussainy’s advice – that living on the alley meant to always dedicate oneself to greater ideas than the ebbs and flows of incessant tragedies and heartbreaks. In addition to this, Abbas’s inability to follow this notion, amplified his tragedy and became the reason for his demise; Abbas moved away from the simplicity of his singular life in Midaq Alley, therefore he was at the mercy of callous and uncaring forces. Maybe if he had gone away for a higher, more spiritual purpose than the one he left for – things could have been different.

In the beginning, therefore, Abbas nourished the alley with his love – “he would make no choice other than the alley. If he spent the rest of his life there, he would be quite happy. The truth was, he loved it” – yet, the yearning for material gain caused him to trade in his devotion for the alley, and instead go in search of supposedly greater ideals. But, interestingly, these ambitions were not his own – but a product of his loving an ambitiously materialistic woman. Similarly, perhaps the reason why he is the only character that dies in the novel is that Abbas’s conventional love for an unconventional female, Hamida, leads to his downfall. He is punished by the alley for prostituting his love for Hamida to such an extent that he rejects the alley to try and fulfill Hamida’s material ambitions – bartering his own happiness and tranquil existence for the fulfillment of his sexual desires which were lauded, glorified and perverted by the modern influences seeping in.

Divided and conflicted between the loss of a previously comfortable life, and the frustration and deprivation of the new one he had been seduced into choosing – he dies, and the alley though suffers from a pall of grief at his loss – “[The alley wept] in the morning when there was material for tears,” forges ahead nevertheless, washing away all vestiges of Abbas from its memory – “the alley returned to its usual state of indifference and forgetfulness” – highlighting that the relationship between it and its inhabitants does not prosper if the characters do not productively influence the alley, and simultaneously, make use of the influence it wields.

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