(A review by Sidharth Vardhan
of Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz
First written on October 1, 2016)
I can see why it is called Naguib Mahfouz's best novel (although I personally like his 'Children of the Alley' more). It has a large number of well-developed and complex characters built with great psychological insight. The Egypt of second world war comes alive in these pages. The lower-middle-class characters - barbers, sweet shop owners etc which populate the book are very much like people belonging to similar classes that I have met in India.
Their psychology, their motivations which Mahfouz draws out so beautifully are universal though. The sexual desires suppressed because of social pressure, the strong desire to move up from one's station in life, the constant consciousness of luxuries that are beyond one's reach - which also turn some people towards corrupt ways. In this novel this desire also makes the youth (among which it is felt most) take part in the war as British army. Of course, once the war is over, the army lays them and their dreams out.
One feels for Hamida whose fate is similar to those who, like her, ignore their emotional needs in face of the glamour of material comforts and only realize their mistake too late.
Another thing I can't help noticing, in all three Mahfouz books I have read so far, is bis refuse to take a judging tone or make social or moral criticism towards his characters, he seems to want to extend his willingness to understand to everyone - which I found sometimes pleasant and sometimes annoying.